• whittle •
(h)wit-êl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: 1. To shape by paring down bit by bit in many thin slices. 2. To pare down or reduce by thin slices or shavings. 3, To reduce the size, amount, or extent by a gradual series of small steps.
Notes: No one seems to know where whit came from. The obvious conclusion to jump to is that whit is a reduction of whittle, but there is no recorded use of the noun whittle in the sense of the shavings made by whittling. Whittle is an authentic English word, so someone who whittles is a whittler and his occupation is whittling.
In Play: The basic meaning of whittle implies wood: "Pardoe whittled himself an elaborate walking cane out of balsa wood, only to find that it couldn't support his weight." However, this word is used today mostly in reference to things other than wood: "After the pool of contestants for the Miss Congeniality contest was whittled down to two, those two fought it out fist-and-nail to determine the final winner."
Word History: In Middle English whittel meant "knife", especially a large one. This word started out as thwittle in Old English, a noun from thwitan "to cut". In Proto-Germanic it was thwit-, which showed up in Old Norse as thveita "to hew" and English thwaite "land cleared of trees". The latter word inhabits several English names, including Brathwaite, Goldthwaite, and Crosthwaite. Taken back to Proto-Indo-European the Proto-Germanic word seems to have come from the root twei- "to agitate, shake, shimmer", remnants of which we can only find Ancient Greek seismos "a shaking, earthquake". Western European languages adopted this word as a component of their equivalents of English seismology, seismic, and seismometer. (We seem to have whittled today's Good Word down to the acknowledgement of Jeremy Busch, a Grand Panjandrum of the Agora and a long-time contributor of suggestions.)