Printable Version
Pronunciation: wit Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Clever humor or a person possessing it, a wag. 2. Intelligence or reasoning power, or person possessing such. 3. (Usually plural: wits) Sanity, mentality, as 'to have one's wits about him/her'.

Notes: This small word is the result of a split personality of an ancestor (see Word History). The meaning of the adjective, witty, and its adverb, wittily, today is limited to the first sense above. Witting and its adverb, wittingly, result from an archaic verbal to wit "to be aware", and which now mean "conscious" and "consciously", respectively.

In Play: This word may be more common in idioms: "Herschel was at his wit's end trying to fill out his tax return." Here is an example of another idiom: "Whoever put the frog in the watercooler must be out of their wits."

Word History: Today's Good Word derives from PIE weid- "to see". The relationship between "see" and "understand" is apparent every time we say, "I see (what you mean)". The meaning of the PIE word shifted to "to know" only in the Germanic languages, as it went into the making of German wissen "to know", Danish vis "wise" and vide "to know", and Dutch wijs "wise" and weten "to know", and English wise and wisdom. It retains its original meaning in the Romance languages, such as Latin video "I see" and visio(n) "vision", which is French voir, Italian videre, and Portuguese and Spanish ver "to see" today. The Slavic languages developed both meanings by distinguishing them in two different verbs, as we see in Russian videt' "to see" and archaic vedat' "to know", Czech vidět "to see" and vědět "to know", and Polish widzieć "to see" and wiedzieć "to know". (Now let's show our gratitude to Gordon Wray, who saw the elaborate fascination in today's tiny Good Word and shared it with us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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