Bonmot is a witty utterance, remark, or twist, a witty expression, or a joke word that fits perfectly in each occasion. Bonmot is found principally in the spoken language, whereby it can be conveyed in all literary genres by the figurative speech. The written correspondence is the aphorism.
The Bonmot can be derived from French and is a composition of the words bon and mot, which can be translated with good and word. So the Bonmot is a good word. The translation clearly shows what is at issue here: a good formulation [which is witty or funny].
Bonmots are therefore a part of the linguistic debate and are a sign of the spirit as well as the eloquence of the speech, which is why they can be understood in the widest sense also as stylistic means, even if they are more spontaneous and repetitive.
Here is also the difference between aphorism and bonmot. For aphorism is a written statement, which sometimes contains an insight, whereas the Bonmot is an eloquent and linguistic utterance, which serves chiefly to entertain the interlocutors.
The Bonmot explained by example
The former Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer is supported by a journalist
asked if he could photograph him again on his 100th birthday.
Adenauer: Why not, you look quite fit!
The above example illustrates the extent to which a bonmot for linguistic responsiveness is a direct response to the previous question by the journalist and also shows why such things work only in literal interchange or the figurative speech. If the whole had been worked out in writing, we would not be able to speak of perversion and word-wit.
The word-joke comes about because the journalist is questioned and younger than Adenauer, who is older. Consequently, he actually asks him if he thinks he is still 100 years old, which is why Adenauer’s reply, which refers to the age of the journalist, can be regarded as a ready-to-go answer and is thus to be understood as Bonmot. The context of the utterance is thus decisive.
“How many islands are there in the Aegean Sea, and what is their name?”
“There are many islands in the Aegean Sea, and I am Robert Gernhardt.”
This commentary is from the German writer Robert Gernhard and reminds of a famous stuff by Heinz Erhardt (“I am not only Heinz Erhardt, but you also warmly welcome.”) Here also the quickness and the word wit emerges only through the direct conversation situation, why the Bonmot also emerges in the context of the utterance in this example.
Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western Civilization?
Gandhi: I think it’s a good idea!
Reporter: Mr. Gandhi, what do they think about Western civilization?
Gandhi: I think that would be a good idea (thing)!
In this example, Gandhi, one of the most important pacifists, moralists and revolutionaries of the twentieth century, is asked what he thinks of Western civilization. The respondent expects an opinion or assessment of the situation.
Gandhi’s answer is witty and funny as she reverses the question by saying that civilization in the West is a great thing, indirectly saying that the West is not civilized. Here too the bon mot is first created in the context of the dialogue.
Difference between Bonmot and Aphorism
A clear separation between Bonmot and the written counterpart of the aphorism is not really possible, with differences between the two expressions.
Aphorism is a single thought which consists in one sentence or few sentences and thus forms an insight or special knowledge, which is why it can be understood as rhetorically valuable and artful. Theodor Fontane put it this way:
A good aphorism is the wisdom of an entire book in a single sentence.
This statement is therefore itself to be understood as aphorism, since it expresses the essence of aphorisms artfully and in one sentence only, and can exist independently.
The Bonmot is fundamentally similar and because it is usually handed down to us in writing, it seems almost identical. The essential difference, however, is that the aphorism consists in written, deliberate form, and the Bonmot is a repetitive and witty reply or comment.
The most important thing about Bonmot at a glance
The Bonmot is a linguistic utterance, which is perceived as particularly apt, witty or artful. Consequently, it can only exist in conversation or the figurative speech.
Consequently, it is regarded as a quick-wittedness of the orator, and speaks for a certain spirit and eloquence, since such a response requires, on the one hand, linguistic refinement and, on the other hand, an accurate knowledge of the context.
The essential difference between bonmot and aphorism is that the latter is composed mainly of a written, deliberate form, and is not expressed spontaneously.