A laconic phrase or laconism is a concise or terse statement, especially a blunt and elliptical rejoinder. It is named after Laconia, the region of Greece including the city of Sparta, whose ancient inhabitants had a reputation for verbal austerity and were famous for their blunt and often pithy remarks.
A laconic phrase may be used for efficiency (as in military jargon), for emphasis, for philosophical reasons (especially among thinkers who believe in minimalism, such as Stoics), or to deflate a pompous interlocutor.
A prominent example involves Philip II of Macedon. After invading southern Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, he turned his attention to Sparta and asked menacingly whether he should come as friend or foe. The reply was "Neither."
Losing patience, he sent the message:
The Spartan ephors again replied with a single word:
The Spartans were especially famous for their dry, understated wit, which is now known as "laconic humor". This can be contrasted with the "Attic salt" or "Attic wit" – the refined, poignant, delicate humour of Sparta's chief rival, Athens.
Various more recent groups also have a reputation for laconic humor: Icelanders in the sagas, and in the Anglophone world, Australians (cf. Australian humor), American cowboys, New Englanders, and people from the North of England.
Spartans paid less attention than other ancient Greeks to the development of education, arts, and literature. Some view this as having contributed to the characteristically blunt Laconian speech. However, Socrates, in Plato's dialogue Protagoras, appears to reject the idea that Spartans' economy with words was simply a consequence of poor literary education: "... they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle ... This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child". Socrates was known to have admired Spartan laws, as did many other Athenians, but modern scholars have doubted the seriousness of his attribution of a secret love of philosophy to Spartans. Still, the Spartans Myson of Chenae and Chilon of Sparta have traditionally been counted among the Seven Sages of Greece; both were famous for many laconic sayings.
In general, however, Spartans were expected to be men of few words, to hold rhetoric in disdain, and to stick to the point. Loquacity was considered frivolous and unbecoming of sensible, down-to-earth Spartan peers. A Spartan youth was reportedly liable to have his thumb bitten as punishment for too verbose a response to a teacher's question.
- A witticism attributed to Lycurgus, the possibly legendary lawgiver of Sparta, was a response to a proposal to set up a democracy there: "Begin with your own family."
- On another occasion, Lycurgus was reportedly asked the reason for the less-than-extravagant size of Sparta's sacrifices to the gods. He replied, "So that we may always have something to offer."
- When he was consulted on how Spartans might best forestall invasion of their homeland, Lycurgus advised, "By remaining poor, and each man not desiring to possess more than his fellow."
- When asked whether it would be prudent to build a defensive wall enclosing the city, Lycurgus answered, "A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick." (When another Spartan was later shown an Asian city with impressive fortifications, he remarked, "Fine quarters for women!")
- Responding to a visitor who questioned why they put their fields in the hands of the helots rather than cultivate them themselves, Anaxandridas explained, "It was by not taking care of the fields, but of ourselves, that we acquired those fields."
- King Demaratus, being pestered by someone with a question concerning who the most exemplary Spartan was, answered "He that is least like you."
- On her husband Leonidas's departure for battle with the Persians at Thermopylae, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta asked what she should do. He advised her: "Marry a good man and bear good children."
- When Ben-Hadad I, king of Aram-Damascus, attacked Ahab, king of Israel, he sent a message: "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful." Ahab replied, "One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off."
- A traveler from Sybaris, a city in southern Italy (which gave rise to the word sybarite) infamous in the ancient world for its luxury and gluttony, was invited to eat in a Spartan mess hall and tasted their black broth. Disgusted, he remarked, "No wonder Spartans are the bravest of men. Anyone in their right mind would rather die a thousand times than live like this."
- When news of the death of Philip II reached Athens in 336 BC, the strategos Phocion banned all celebratory sacrifice, saying: "The army which defeated us at Chaeronea has lost just one man."
- The heavy price of defeating the Romans in the Battle of Asculum (279 BC) prompted Pyrrhus to respond to an offer of congratulations with "If we win one more battle we will be doomed" ("One more such victory and the cause is lost"; in Ancient Greek: Ἂν ἔτι μίαν μάχην νικήσωμεν, ἀπολώλαμεν Án éti mían máchēn nikḗsōmen, apolṓlamen).
- During the Siege of Bastogne, as part of the Battle of the Bulge, German General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent a demand for surrender to U.S. commander Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe and insisted that his troops were doomed unless they complied. McAuliffe replied "NUTS!"