Printable Version
Pronunciation: wai-lee Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Cunning, sly, full of wiles, tricky, designing.

Notes: Today's Good Word is the adjective for wile, most often use in the plural, wiles. Its comparative and superlative are wilier and wiliest, but don't be surprised to hear more wily and most wily, since the phrasal forms seem to be gaining prominence. The noun made from the adjective is wiliness and the adverb is wilily. Wile may also be used as a verb, meaning "to deceive".

In Play: Foxes are considered wily by English-speakers the world over: "Senator Morton is a wily old fox with more tricks up his sleeve than fleas on a dog." However, it may be used figuratively for things other than humans and animals: "That night the wily tide erased the shoal completely."

Word History: Wile remains a matter of etymological controversy. The best explanation associates it with wicca and witch via a suffixed form of PIE weg-/wog- "strong, lively" (weg-l-). This form of weg-/wog- might have become Old English wigle "wile, trick", a cognate of Old Norse vel "artifice, craft". This leaves only an explanation of how the G vanished. Old English also had a word wil without the G, which is taken as the ancestor of wile. Anyway, French borrowed this word and, since Old French has no W, replaced it with the nearest sound it had, [gw], spelled GU, to get guile, which English walked away with, too. If it did come from weg-/wog-, it is in the family with wake and watch, Latin vigil "watchful, awake" and vegere "to move, arouse" (source of the English borrowing vegetable), German wachen "watch, guard", in addition to wicca and witch. (Now a tip of all our hats to long-time contributor William Hupy, for today's beguiling Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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