I don't usually pay compliments to my wife, Nicci Gerrard, in this column. That's an understatement. I never have. Not once. But last weekend, she achieved something that deserves acknowledgement. She was the first person in the history of the world to write a profile of Joan Bakewell that did not feature the phrase "thinking man's crumpet". Reputedly, this was coined by Frank Muir in the early 1960s. Observer readers probably thought that the phrase had been accidentally omitted due to some technical hitch - but no, she left it out deliberately. This was not because the phrase is sexist, but because it is an ordinary phrase that has survived because of some sort of journalistic inertia.
It must be painful to be the victim of a clever epigram. For the last 40-odd years of Hedy Lamarr's life, nobody mentioned her without referring to Groucho Marx's comment on why he didn't see her starring with Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah: "I'd never see a film in which the leading man's tits are bigger than the leading lady's." That's pretty funny. And then there was Lyndon Johnson's comment about Gerald Ford: "Jerry Ford is so dumb that he can't fart and chew gum at the same time." (Another alleged Johnsonism was: "He's so dumb he couldn't tip shit out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel.")
Literary researchers have established that, as of last weekend, 74,387 profiles of Martin Amis have referred to the New Statesman comp about unlikely book titles which attracted the entry "My Struggle by Martin Amis". That was moderately funny the first thousand times, but it's starting to pall.
Is it even worse to be irrevocably associated with an epigram that wasn't funny in the first place? Profiles of Geoffrey Howe inevitably mention Denis Healey's joke that Howe's speech was "rather like being savaged by a dead sheep". Would that feeble joke, or Michael Foot's comparison of Norman Tebbit to a "semi-house-trained polecat", raise a laugh anywhere except the House of Commons?
Most of the above feature in the newly published Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations compiled by Robert Andrews. Browsing through it made me wonder if some virus had swept through the modern world, depriving almost all humans of the ability to formulate a decent epigram. W B Yeats wrote that he always felt affection for Oscar Wilde after hearing him say of George Bernard Shaw that he had no enemies but was disliked by all his friends. Obviously, there are still people who can be funny. I can reel off Woody Allen jokes by the yard. For example: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym."
But this new Penguin dictionary is like a hospital for sick epigrams, sayings lacking pith and jokes that have had their humorous bits amputated. Andrews even manages to find some failed Woody Allen cracks - for example: "Life doesn't imitate art; it imitates bad television." How could he include that and omit Allen's comment on the movie business? "It's dog eat dog. It's worse than dog eat dog. It's dog doesn't return other dog's phone calls." Gradually, these failed sayings become curiously hypnotic. Take the following from the US Senator Tom Harkin: "The Gulf war was like teenage sex. We got in too soon and out too soon." There is something brilliant about this comparison that doesn't make sense in relation either to the Gulf war or to teenage sex. I can understand the argument that the west shouldn't have got involved in the Gulf war at all, or that it got involved too late, but too soon? And the teenage sex bit - that I don't understand at all.
Some of the quotations have the beauty of another Statesman comp, which asked for useless sayings such as: "An owl in a sack troubles no man." Take the following from Iris Murdoch: "A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia." This isn't exactly a match for Dr Johnson's great comment on bad reviews: "Fame is a shuttlecock . . . To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." Or what about this from John Malkovich: "Where women are concerned, the rule is never to go out with anyone better dressed than you."
Which reminds me of a riposte that someone once told me, to be used when somebody is being unfunny. You say: "You should be on the stage. There's one leaving in ten minutes." Good, eh? Which also reminds me of an alleged chat-up line that Clint Eastwood used (I have this on very bad authority): "This face is leaving town in ten minutes. Be on it." It may have worked for Clint, but it never worked for me. But then, no line ever worked for me.