"THOU art a fool," said my head to my heart,
"Indeed, the greatest of fools thou art,
To be led astray by the trick of a tress,
By a smiling face or a ribbon smart;"
And my heart was in sore distress.

Then Phyllis came by, and her face was fair,
The light gleamed soft on her raven hair;
And her lips were blooming a rosy red.
Then my heart spoke out with a right bold air:
"Thou art worse than a fool, O head!"

-from Lyrics of Lowly Life, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1896)

I got to wondering about the word retort as I was preparing a bowl of "premium" tom yam instant noodle soup. (Yes, even I, dedicated gourmet cook, sometimes resort to instant noodles: but premium! Only premium!) Alongside the little plastic pouch of hot chili powder, and the bigger one of nam prik phao, and the even bigger one of dried shrimp and vegetables, was a very big flexible foil pouch, labelled in Thai and English "retort pouch". (The Thai just sounded out the English words in Thai characters.) It contained a weird goo surrounding some sliced straw mushrooms, two mussels, and some squid rings. Yum! (Well, except for the goo.)

But clearly this kind of retort has nothing to do with the one that I know, which is a witty riposte, a quick comeback, a sharp reply. So I thought I'd do some investigating as I waited the requisite three minutes for my soup to "cook".

Turns out that retort has technical meanings as well. A retort is a vessel, often glass, which is used to heat solid or semi-solid substances in order to distill or decompose them; it typically has a bulbous body and a downward curving neck. A retort is also a cylindrical refractory chamber used to heat coal or ore. To retort is to sterilize food after it has been sealed into a container, and here at last we approach the retort pouch, which is a kind of flexible can or tin. It's a pouch made of layers of film or aluminium foil into which food is placed; once the food is sealed into the pouch, the food and the pouch itself are subject to very high temperature and pressure, sterilizing both pouch and food. Food in retort pouches can last without refrigeration or preservatives for 18 months. It will not surprise you that retort pouches were developed for the Apollo space program and are still used today for military MREs. I'm not thrilled about the latter, but confess that it warms my heart to know that eating my instant tom yam brings me that much closer to those nutty explorers of the modern world, the astronauts.

And by the time I found all this out, I'd polished off the soup, which was delicious.

Re*tort" (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Retorted; p. pr. & vb. n. Retorting.] [L. retortus, p. p. of retorquere; pref. re- re- + torquere to turn twist. See Torsion, and cf. Retort, n., 2.]


To bend or curve back; as, a retorted line.

With retorted head, pruned themselves as they floated. Southey.


To throw back; to reverberate; to reflect.

As when his virtues, shining upon others, Heat them and they retort that heat again To the first giver. Shak.


To return, as an argument, accusation, censure, or incivility; as, to retort the charge of vanity.

And with retorted scorn his back he turned. Milton.


© Webster 1913.

Re*tort", v. i.

To return an argument or a charge; to make a severe reply.



© Webster 1913.

Re*tort", n. [See Retort, v. t.]


The return of, or reply to, an argument, charge, censure, incivility, taunt, or witticism; a quick and witty or severe response.

This is called the retort courteous. Shak.

2. [F. retorte (cf. Sp. retorta), fr. L. retortus, p. p. of retorquere. So named from its bent shape. See Retort, v. t.] Chem. & the Arts

A vessel in which substances are subjected to distillation or decomposition by heat. It is made of different forms and materials for different uses, as a bulb of glass with a curved beak to enter a receiver for general chemical operations, or a cylinder or semicylinder of cast iron for the manufacture of gas in gas works.

Tubulated retort Chem., a retort having a tubulure for the introduction or removal of the substances which are to be acted upon.

Syn. -- Repartee; answer. -- Retort, Repartee. A retort is a short and pointed reply, turning back on an assailant the arguments, censure, or derision he had thrown out. A repartee is usually a good-natured return to some witty or sportive remark.


© Webster 1913.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.