Lexical Investigations: Wit

Though today we most often think of wit as a particular kind of humor, historically it has referred more generally to mental faculty. In the time of Chaucer, for example, wit could mean a way of thinking, much as we use mind today in phrases like “we were of one mind” or “he had a mind to.” For many centuries, wit could also refer to other kinds of perception. What we now call the five senses were once known as “the five wits.”

The phrase “Wit, whither wilt thou?” was popular during the seventeenth century, and expressed a desire to regain control of one’s ability to speak articulately.

Today wit is differentiated from other kinds of humor by its emphasis on cleverness with language, and the ability to think quickly or “on one’s feet.” There are many kinds of comedy that do not count as witty, such as slapstick, which relies on physical humor.

Popular References:

Wit, a play by Margaret Edson, which premiered in 1995. HBO Films adapted it into a TV movie starring Emma Thompson in 2001.

Relevant Citations:

”Have you no wit, manners, or honesty, but to gabble like inters at this time of night?”

–William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, or What You Will (1623)

“Vex not thou the poet’s mind / With thy shallow wit”

–Lord Alfred Tennyson, “The Poet’s Mind” (1830)

“It may be that they were deficient in charm, in wit, in rank, or in clothing.”

–Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938)

Read our previous post about the word diaspora.
A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.


  1. GingerlyWaysIsBack -  June 7, 2013 - 12:32 pm

    these comments are lame.. barrrf

  2. Really Rod -  June 3, 2013 - 7:44 pm

    Wit is more often used in reference to cleverness or intelligence (esp the ability to quickly analyze and respond) in the United States.

  3. Larry -  June 3, 2013 - 7:35 am

    I think Eric may be somewhat without his wits. When not caring; it is not caring a whit, not wit.

  4. Walter -  June 2, 2013 - 6:22 am

    “Witty or clever, whatever.”
    ~Ashley Levy

  5. Daniel J. Alimossy -  June 1, 2013 - 10:42 pm

    He’s not quick of wit; nor is he slow of wit . . . He’s just a half fast wit.
    ~ digheyseus

  6. Michael -  June 1, 2013 - 6:02 am

    Interested readers might look at C. S. Lewis’ Studies in Words (1960). Lewis dedicates all of chapter 4 to the word “wit,” taking off from its Latin equivalent and the word for which “wit” was often taken as a translation, “ingenium”

  7. Bubba -  May 31, 2013 - 9:00 am

    He had but brane of berd/ his wit warnt wurth the wurd.

  8. wittiest -  May 31, 2013 - 7:45 am

    I was named “wittiest” as a superlative in my glory days and I speak German so ” zum wissen” and wit, I definitely git ( get). I also discussed the meaning of wit once with a professor who obviously had some hard times with someone witty because her take was that wit always tries to be biting, cutdown humor and is mean. But, I think it’s clever and of course, it can be mean to be too clever when engaging in a “battle of wits with an unarmed person” as Dorothy Parker once said, (but not to me personally). And as the Bee Gees once proclaimed, “It’s only words, and words are all I haaa..ave to take your heart away.”

  9. Jordan -  May 30, 2013 - 6:44 pm

    You hear things ‘wit’ your ears, see ‘wit’ your eyes, touch ‘wit’ your hands, smell ‘wit’ your nose and taste ‘wit’ your tongue!

  10. Archon -  May 30, 2013 - 6:43 pm

    @ Eric
    You don’t care a WHIT.

  11. Geoffrey Racksla -  May 30, 2013 - 3:15 pm

    Wit, whiter wilt thou. If you guys dare me I will say this to random people on the streets

  12. e257 -  May 30, 2013 - 12:55 pm

    Eric, you’re thinking of “whit.”

  13. Adam Mary -  May 30, 2013 - 8:08 am

    Scared the wits out of me or you or us…

  14. Silly1 -  May 30, 2013 - 3:03 am

    Isn’t someone who is witty 50% of the time a halfwit?

  15. DD -  May 29, 2013 - 6:40 pm

    keep your wits about you

  16. jtcookie -  May 29, 2013 - 4:53 pm

    Our classically trained English master always held that “wit” is a derivation of “wisdom”, and pointed out that a certain wisdom made the difference between wit and humour.

  17. bodhidave -  May 29, 2013 - 2:26 pm

    … “bodily wits” referred to the physical senses, while “ghostly wits” meant mental and/or spiritual faculties.

  18. bodhidave -  May 29, 2013 - 2:18 pm

    “Wit” in Middle English was also a verb, meaning “know” (related to the German “wisen”). That meaning is behind the current idiom “to wit,” effectlvely meaning “namely,” but literally meaning “to know.”

  19. Yankiemog -  May 29, 2013 - 1:43 pm

    Amourous owls go out at night, to wit, to woo

  20. Larry -  May 29, 2013 - 1:42 pm

    @Aperson, you cannot be fast if you comment on things that “…makes no *sense to you”.

  21. Violet Crawley -  May 29, 2013 - 12:38 pm

    Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.

  22. Aperson -  May 29, 2013 - 10:33 am

    Wow.. non of this makes sence to me all i got was that im fast

  23. Eric -  May 29, 2013 - 8:41 am

    I don’t care a wit, and that scares me out of my wits!

  24. Chuck Steinbruegge -  May 29, 2013 - 7:14 am

    Don’t forget Nordic-Viking contribution, as well as Norman-French.

    Also, the Saxons were themselves primarily Germanic tribes; the origin of the Angles is not well-established, but probably lower Danish peninsula down into modern northern German coast.

  25. Ethan -  May 29, 2013 - 1:09 am

    FIRST COMMENT, have said that I really dont know why that has has “something” to do with it! and also you have no “Wits”

  26. luvmonkey -  May 28, 2013 - 4:22 pm

    RE: “Though today we most often think of wit as a particular kind of humor, ”

    I always thought of wit as a variety of smarts. Example: “It’s hard to have a battle of wits with an unarmed person.”

    I was interested to read about the evolution of this word. Thanks Dictionary.com.

  27. WIT | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  May 28, 2013 - 9:27 am

    [...] ‘Wit’ we witness weather — Wither now or whether ever — Not the witness how — Or that [...]


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