Printable Version
Pronunciation: wit-nis Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Someone who sees an event and who therefore has first-hand knowledge of it. 2. Someone called to testify in court. 3. Evidence, proof. 4. Someone who publicly affirms (testifies to) a religious faith. 5. (Capitalized) A member of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Notes: Today's rather odd Good Word has the suffix -ness, usually used to nominalize adjectives (redness, closeness, firmness), to mark a personal noun. It may be used as a verb, as 'to witness an accident', whose present participle may be used as an adjective or action noun.

In Play: This word is most often used in the legal sense of someone called as a witness in a court trial: "Beauregard's defense lawyer claimed that all the uniformed police in the courtroom were there to intimidate his witnesses." The verbal usage is synonymous with the phrase 'to bear witness': "Johanna was at the party and witnessed the spectacle of Fred yodeling while bouncing around the room with a lampshade on his head."

Word History: This word is obviously based on wit, which derives from the PIE word 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", French voir, Italian videre, and Portuguese and Spanish ver "to see". The Slavic languages kept both meanings, 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 a word of thanks is due Eileen Opiolka for spotting the oddity of today's ordinary Good Word and reporting it to us.)

Dr. Goodword,

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