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I am little bit confused with the words: Riposte and Retort. When to use which one?

Oxford says that...

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/retort

retort: Say something in answer to a remark, typically in a sharp, angry, or witty manner.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/riposte

riposte: A quick, clever reply to an insult or criticism.

I don't understand whether:
1. retort means to snap back or riposte mean to snap back?
2. retort means to give witty reply or riposte means to give witty reply.
Please help and distinguish these two words.

Thank you in advance!

  • One difference (beyond the obvious ones in the above definitions) is that "riposte" is relatively new in popularity (I only first heard it maybe 10 years ago), while "retort" is ancient (and steadily losing popularity over the past 100 years). (Of course, "retort" can refer to a sort of device used in industry, so it gets a bit confused.) google.com/… – Hot Licks Apr 6 at 21:37
  • @HotLicks so both are synonymous? – Gustobg Apr 6 at 21:39
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    Do note that an "angry retort" is fairly likely. Eg, "You're an idiot!!" Not at all "clever". While a riposte is necessarily clever, and necessarily a reply to an insult/criticism. – Hot Licks Apr 6 at 21:42
  • Are the 'definitions' that you've quoted, your own definitions or from a dictionary? If the latter, please specify - and preferably provide links to - the respective dictionaries. I'm suggesting this because someone has already voted to close your question for lack of research. – TrevorD Apr 6 at 22:56
  • @TrevorD yes they are from dictionary – Gustobg Apr 6 at 22:59
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The two words are synonyms, as they are nearly the same thing definition-wise (except for the second definition riposte can have, and the fact that retort doesn't have to be a witty, sharp or angry response, only usually is), but this does not mean that they are virtually exactly the same thing semantics-wise.

Semantics is a sub-field within linguistics. It covers the meaning of words, and the meaning of a word isn't always just its stark dictionary definition. It also involves connotations – the subtler distinctions between the dictionary definition/s of a word and the implications that word engenders. Even the best dictionaries can't come close to bringing out all the myriads of nuances connected with almost every word, though nowadays they try to begin to address the problem by adding many example sentences. So, what does this mean for your case? Well, to repeat, they both mean nearly the same thing definition-wise. But they have different connotations.

Right off the bat, they have a pretty different morphological and phonetic structure to them, which has a neurological effect on a person.

In American English, the "O" in riposte is pronounced as the /oʊ/ diphthong, quite different from the flat /ɔː/ in retort. In British there's the /ɒ/ sound instead of the diphthong in riposte, so the phonetic difference as big as when pronounced American.

But morphology-wise, the words are quite distinguishable. Riposte is a word most recognize as borrowed from French, which is quite evident from the silent "e" at the end. In fact, it is the French word for retort.

Retort is a Latin word, giving it a much more "English" feel to it. The distinguishable etymological origins of the words give them different connotations immediately.

One could argue riposte is a more poetic and beautiful word, though this is subjective, and there have obviously been no studies as to the majority consensus on this, which means it doesn't really count as a connotation. But ask yourself this question, and work off of that.

In usage, according to Collins Dictionary, they are both listed as "Used Occasionally", so there is little to no discernible difference in their popularity.

Lastly, something user Robusto mentioned in his answer, riposte is also the word for a counter-attack in fencing, which adds a lot more depth to the word's thematic and symbolic potential. It also affects the connotations to be had.

  • 1
    +1 for the paraphrase of 'connotation is dependent on the hearer/reader as well as on the word (in its entirety – popularly known affiliations {eg with 'fencing' and the sort of person that exercise is usually/popularly associated with}; morphology; how it sounds ... }) itself'. I'd say that 'retort' probably comes across to most people as the harsher term, 'riposte' being more poetic (as you say), highbrow, esoteric, highfalutin (though they're both pretty formal), airy-fairy ... (I'd better stop). Using terms like this distracts from the harshness – 'You are mendacious' / 'You're a liar'. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 10:20
  • Sorry; I've taken the liberty of adding a little extra meat to your answer. Please edit to delete if you disagree with it or just feel patronised. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 10:26
  • I've re-read your answer, and wish I could add another upvote for 'The distinguishable etymological origins of the words give them different connotations immediately.' This is the other side of the coin from the etymological fallacy. // Your whole answer is perhaps the best general analysis of 'What's the difference in meaning between (synonyms) A and B?'-type questions I've come across on ELU. // On the subjectivity of connotation, I heard about a young girl naming numbers from dot patterns: "One, two, three, four, five ... that's a fish." It turned out that the six-dot pattern was ... – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 10:43
  • exactly the same as a join-the-dot outline of a fish in her favourite activity book. She was correct, of course, according to her own internal evaluation settings. When we heard this story in a lecture (the moral being 'discover and work with what the child sees as correct / relevant rather than hyper-correcting'), I'm afraid someone beat me to "Has it anything to do with plaice value?" – Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 10:46
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    No problem with the editing of my answer! You just made it better ;) @EdwinAshworth – A. Kvåle Jun 13 at 19:02
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I think one comment made by Hot Licks shows a difference, though it's true the two words generally mean the same thing.

Do note that an "angry retort" is fairly likely. Eg, "You're an idiot!!" Not at all "clever". While a riposte is necessarily clever, ...

You might argue whether a "riposte" is NECESSARILY clever, but the example given above I feel is a great example of when one word is clearly much more suitable than the other. I guess this might be one of those cases where an explanation may not be satisfactorily definitive, but an illustration highlights a considerable difference rather easily.

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The two words are used pretty much interchangeably, but it's worth noting that riposte is also a term used in fencing, so it may carry that additional nuance of a counterattack in combat.

riposte n
1. Sports A quick thrust given after parrying an opponent's lunge in fencing.
TFD Online

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Riposte is a noun; retort is both a noun and a verb. Maybe only consider using riposte when a noun is indicated and leave retort for the verbs.

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    Riposte can also be used as a verb. – A. Kvåle May 11 at 21:36

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