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.
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