No. 504. Wednesday, October 8, 1712. Steele.

Lepus tute es, et pulpamentum quæris.'

It is a great Convenience to those who want Wit to furnish out a Conversation, that there is something or other in all Companies where it is wanted substituted in its stead, which according to their Taste, does the Business as well. Of this nature is the agreeable Pastime in Country-Halls of Cross-purposes, Questions and Commands, and the like. A little superior to these are those who can play at Crambo, or cap Verses. Then above them are such as can make Verses, that is, Rhime; and among those who have the Latin Tongue, such as use to make what they call golden Verses. Commend me also to those who have not Brains enough for any of these Exercises, and yet do not give up their Pretensions to Mirth. These can slap you on the Back unawares, laugh loud, ask you how you do with a Twang on your Shoulders, say you are dull to-day, and laugh a Voluntary to put you in Humour; the laborious Way among the minor Poets, of making things come into such and such a Shape, as that of an Egg, an Hand, an Ax, or any thing that no body had ever thought on before for that purpose, or which would have cost a great deal of Pains to accomplish it if they did. But all these Methods, tho' they are mechanical, and may be arrived at with the smallest Capacity, do not serve an honest Gentleman who wants Wit for his Ordinary Occasions; therefore it is absolutely necessary that the Poor in Imagination should have something which may be serviceable to them at all Hours upon all common Occurrences. That which we call Punning is therefore greatly affected by Men of small Intellects. These Men need not be concerned with you for the whole Sentence; but if they can say a quaint thing, or bring in a Word which sounds like any one Word you have spoken to them they can turn the Discourse, or distract you so that you cannot go on, and by consequence if they cannot be as witty as you are, they can hinder your being any wittier than they are. Thus if you talk of a Candle, he can deal with you; and if you ask him to help you to some Bread, a Punster should think himself very ill-bred if he did not; and if he is not as well-bred as your self, he hopes for Grains of Allowance. If you do not understand that last Fancy, you must recollect that Bread is made of Grain; and so they go on for ever, without Possibility of being exhausted.

There are another Kind of People of small Faculties, who supply want of Wit with want of Breeding; and because Women are both by Nature and Education more offended at any thing which is immodest than we Men are, these are ever harping upon things they ought not to allude to, and deal mightily in double Meanings. Every one's own Observation will suggest Instances enough of this kind, without my mentioning any; for your double Meaners are dispersed up and down thro' all Parts of Town or City where there are any to offend, in order to set off themselves. These Men are mighty loud Laughers, and held very pretty Gentlemen with the sillier and unbred Part of Womankind. But above all already mentioned, or any who ever were, or ever can be in the World, the happiest and surest to be pleasant, are a Sort of People whom we have not indeed lately heard much of, and those are your Biters.

A Biter [1] is one who tells you a thing you have no reason to disbelieve in it self; and perhaps has given you, before he bit you, no reason to disbelieve it for his saying it; and if you give him Credit, laughs in your Face, and triumphs that he has deceiv'd you. In a Word, a Biter is one who thinks you a Fool, because you do not think him a Knave. This Description of him one may insist upon to be a just one; for what else but a Degree of Knavery is it, to depend upon Deceit for what you gain of another, be it in point of Wit, or Interest, or any thing else?

This way of Wit is called Biting, by a Metaphor taken from Beasts of Prey, which devour harmless and unarmed Animals, and look upon them as their Food wherever they meet them. The Sharpers about Town very ingeniously understood themselves to be to the undesigning Part of Mankind what Foxes are to Lambs, and therefore used the Word Biting to express any Exploit wherein they had over-reach'd any innocent and inadvertent Man of his Purse. These Rascals of late Years have been the Gallants of the Town, and carried it with a fashionable haughty Air, to the discouragement of Modesty and all honest Arts. Shallow Fops, who are govern'd by the Eye, and admire every thing that struts in vogue, took up from the Sharpers the Phrase of Biting, and used it upon all Occasions, either to disown any nonsensical Stuff they should talk themselves, or evade the Force of what was reasonably said by others. Thus, when one of these cunning Creatures was enter'd into a Debate with you, whether it was practicable in the present State of Affairs to accomplish such a Proposition, and you thought he had let fall what destroy'd his Side of the Question, as soon as you look'd with an Earnestness ready to lay hold of it, he immediately cry'd, Bite, and you were immediately to acknowledge all that Part was in Jest. They carry this to all the Extravagance imaginable, and if one of these Witlings knows any Particulars which may give Authority to what he says, he is still the more ingenious if he imposes upon your Credulity. I remember a remarkable Instance of this Kind. There came up a shrewd young Fellow to a plain young Man, his Countryman, and taking him aside with a grave concern'd Countenance, goes on at this rate: I see you here, and have you heard nothing out of Yorkshire--You look so surpriz'd you could not have heard of it--and yet the Particulars are such, that it cannot be false: I am sorry I am got into it so far that I now must tell you; but I know not but it may be for your Service to know--on Tuesday last, just after Dinner--you know his Manner is to smoke, opening his Box, your Father fell down dead in an Apoplexy. The Youth shew'd the filial Sorrow which he ought--Upon which the witty Man cry'd, Bite, there was nothing in all this--

To put an end to this silly, pernicious, frivolous Way at once, I will give the Reader one late Instance of a Bite, which no Biter for the future will ever be able to equal, tho' I heartily wish him the same Occasion. It is a Superstition with some Surgeons who beg the Bodies of condemn'd Malefactors, to go to the Gaol, and bargain for the Carcase with the Criminal himself. A good honest Fellow did so last Sessions, and was admitted to the condemned Men on the Morning wherein they died. The Surgeon communicated his Business, and fell into discourse with a little Fellow, who refused Twelve Shillings, and insisted upon Fifteen for his Body. The Fellow, who kill'd the Officer of Newgate, very forwardly, and like a Man who was willing to deal, told him, Look you, Mr. Surgeon, that little dry Fellow, who has been half-starved all his Life, and is now half-dead with Fear, cannot answer your Purpose. I have ever liv'd high and freely, my Veins are full, I have not pined in Imprisonment; you see my Crest swells to your Knife, and after Jack-Catch has done, upon my Honour you'll find me as sound as e'er a Bullock in any of the Markets. Come, for Twenty Shillings I am your Man--Says the Surgeon, Done, there's a Guinea--This witty Rogue took the Money, and as soon as he had it in his Fist, cries, Bite, I am to be hang'd in Chains.


[Footnote 1: See No. 47. Swift writes,

'I'll teach you a way to outwit Mrs. Johnson; it is a new fashioned way of being witty, and they call it a Bite. You must ask a bantering question, or tell some lie in a serious manner, then she will answer, or speak as if you were in earnest, and then cry you, "Madam, there's a Bite." I would not have you undervalue this, for it is the constant amusement in Court, and every where else among the great people; and I let you know it, in order to have it among you, and to teach you a new refinement.'

Journal to Stella. Although 'bite' and 'biter' have not retained this sense, it remains in an occasional use of the word 'bitten.']

Translation of motto:
TER. Eun. Act iii. Sc. 1.
'You are a hare yourself, and want dainties, forsooth.'