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I was reading 'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I came across this phrase at the beginning of Chapter 17. Here's the full context:- "When one wishes to play the wit, he sometimes wanders a little from the truth. I have not been altogether honest in what I have told you about the lamplighters. And I realise……"

Can someone explain the meaning of this phrase?

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  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. Please take the tour and when you have a moment, read-up in the help center about how we work. Mar 26, 2020 at 9:34
  • Lexico has for wit 2.1 A witty person. Mar 26, 2020 at 10:35
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    And play here means act like or take on the roll of.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 26, 2020 at 10:40
  • I would take it to mean roughly the same as "act like a jester", only maybe toned down a bit.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 26, 2020 at 12:19
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    @HotLicks I was on my way out the door with a bun in my mouth when I wrote that.
    – Phil Sweet
    Mar 26, 2020 at 20:39

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It appears as a translation of "faire de l'esprit" in "Quand on veut faire de l’esprit, il arrive que l’on mente un peu.", which means " When one wishes to say witty things, he sometimes lies a little.
Here, I disagree somewhat with the translation: "faire de l'esprit" is not really based on pretense or play-acting but stems from a turn of mind that incites one to put forward certain strange aspects in the situations discussed; it happens that often, when people say "faire de l'esprit", they understate through the context that the try at being witty is not successful, as either the try at underlining a catchy reality misses the point or results in a distorted outlook on that reality or shows some other failure such as exaggeration.
If you happen to have notions of French, here is one definition of "faire de l'esprit" which goes a little in the sense of the translation (affection).

(TLFi) Faire de l'esprit (péj.) Vouloir absolument se montrer spirituel, chercher avec affectation à faire preuve d'esprit

However the following definitions make a total abstraction of the disapproving quality of this phrase such as underlined in the preceding one.

(internaute) Expression familière qui s'emploie pour parler de quelqu'un qui tient des propos fins et amusants. Elle a une connotation très positive et s'applique généralement à des personnes dotées d'une certaine intelligence et d'un certain humour très subtil.
(user LPH's translation) Colloquial expression used to talk of someone who can speak wittily and be funny; it is a phrase that is very approving and that is used for people endowed with a certain intelligence and capable of a very subtle sense of humour of some sort.

 

(Le Wiktionnaire) (Familier) Tenir des propos fins et amusants
(user LPH's translation) (Colloquial) Say things that are sharp and funny

Note As well, "wander from the truth" is too weak: "mentir un peu" is rendered as "lie a little"; "s'éloigner de la vérité" is what corresponds to "wander from the truth".

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  • What was that film where bewigged men prized mots d'esprit? Mar 26, 2020 at 11:31

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