- wit (n.)
- "mental capacity," Old English wit, more commonly gewit, from Proto-Germanic *witjan (cf. Old Saxon wit, Old Norse vit, Danish vid, Swedish vett, Old Frisian wit, Old High German wizzi "knowledge, understanding, intelligence, mind," German Witz "wit, witticism, joke," Gothic unwiti "ignorance"), from PIE *woid-/*weid-/*wid- "to see," metaphorically "to know" (see vision). Related to Old English witan "to know" (source of wit (v.)). Meaning "ability to make clever remarks in an amusing way" is first recorded 1540s; that of "person of wit or learning" is from late 15c. For nuances of usage, see humor.
A witty saying proves nothing. [Voltaire, Diner du Comte de Boulainvilliers]
Wit ought to be five or six degrees above the ideas that form the intelligence of an audience. [Stendhal, "Life of Henry Brulard"]
- wit (v.)
- "know," Old English witan "to know," from Proto-Germanic *witanan "to have seen," hence "to know" (cf. Old Saxon witan, Old Norse vita, Old Frisian wita, Middle Dutch, Dutch weten, Old High German wizzan, German wissen, Gothic witan "to know"); see wit (n.). The phrase to wit, almost the only surviving use of the verb, is first recorded 1570s, from earlier that is to wit (mid-14c.), probably a loan-translation of Anglo-French cestasavoir, used to render Latin videlicet (see viz.).
- witch (n.)
- Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use especially "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts," fem. of Old English wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic," from verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft" (cf. Low German wikken, wicken "to use witchcraft," wikker, wicker "soothsayer").
OED says of uncertain origin; Liberman says "None of the proposed etymologies of witch is free from phonetic or semantic difficulties." Klein suggests connection with Old English wigle "divination," and wig, wih "idol." Watkins says the nouns represent a Proto-Germanic *wikkjaz "necromancer" (one who wakes the dead), from PIE *weg-yo-, from *weg- "to be strong, be lively."
That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of "female magician, sorceress" perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in Old English describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c.890), witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the W. Saxons:
Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban."
The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices "incantations," and scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit." Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, because the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm." Lybbestre was a fem. word meaning "sorceress," and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron). Weekley notes possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and German weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents." In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders Latin augur (c.1100), and wicce stands for "pythoness, divinatricem." In the "Three Kings of Cologne" (c.1400) wicca translates Magi:
Þe paynyms ... cleped þe iij kyngis Magos, þat is to seye wicchis.
The glossary translates Latin necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft. The Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." In a c.1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used of the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben." Witch in reference to a man survived in dialect into 20c., but the fem. form was so dominant by 1601 that men-witches or he-witch began to be used. Extended sense of "young woman or girl of bewitching aspect or manners" is first recorded 1740. Witch doctor is from 1718; applied to African magicians from 1836.
At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch,' or 'she is a wise woman.' [Reginald Scot, "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," 1584]
- witch hazel (n.)
- 1540s, probably from Old English wice "wych-elm" (from wican "to bend") + hæsel, used for any bush of the pine family. The North American bush, from which a soothing lotion is made, was so called from 1670s.
- witch hunt (n.)
- 1630s in the literal sense; the extended sense is attested from 1932 (in witch-hunting), popularized in Cold War anti-Communist hysteria.
- witchcraft (n.)
- Old English wiccecræft, from wicce (see witch) + cræft "power, skill" (see craft). Witchcraft was declared a crime in English law in 1542; trials there peaked in 1580s and 1640s but fell sharply after 1660. The last, in 1717, ended in acquittal. The Witchcraft Act was repealed 1736.
- with (prep.)
- Old English wið "against, opposite, toward," a shortened form related to wiðer, from Proto-Germanic *withro- "against" (cf. Old Saxon withar "against," Old Norse viðr "against, with, toward, at," Middle Dutch, Dutch weder, Dutch weer "again," Gothic wiþra "against, opposite"), from PIE *wi-tero-, literally "more apart," from root *wi- "separation" (cf. Sanskrit vi, Avestan vi- "asunder," Sanskrit vitaram "further, farther," Old Church Slavonic vutoru "other, second").
Sense shifted in Middle English to denote association, combination, and union, partly by influence of Old Norse vidh, and also perhaps by Latin cum "with" (as in pugnare cum "fight with"). In this sense, it replaced Old English mid "with," which survives only as a prefix (e.g. midwife). Original sense of "against, in opposition" is retained in compounds such as withhold, withdraw, withstand. Often treated as a conjunction by ungrammatical writers and used where and would be correct. First record of with child "pregnant" is recorded from c.1200. With it "cool" is black slang, recorded by 1931. French avec "with" was originally avoc, from Vulgar Latin *abhoc, from apud hoc, literally "with this."
- withal (adv.)
- "in addition," late 14c., from Middle English with alle (c.1200), superseding Old English mid ealle "wholly" (see with).
- withdraw (v.)
- early 13c., "to take back," from with "away" + drawen "to draw," possibly a loan-translation of Latin retrahere "to retract." Sense of "to remove oneself" is recorded from c.1300.
- withdrawal (n.)
- 1820s, "act of taking back," also "retraction of a statement," from withdraw + -al (2). Earlier words in the same sense were withdrawment (1640s); withdraught (mid-14c.). Meaning "removal of money from a bank, etc." is from 1861; psychological sense is from 1916; meaning "physical reaction to the cessation of an addictive substance" is from 1929 (with an isolated use from 1897; withdrawal symptoms is from 1924). As a synonym for coitus interruptus from 1889.
- withe (n.)
- Old English wiððe "twisted cord, willow twig" (see withy).
- wither (v.)
- 1530s, alteration of Middle English wydderen "dry up, shrivel" (c.1300), apparently a differentiated and special use of wederen "to expose to weather" (see weather). Cf. German verwittern "to become weather-beaten," from Witter "weather."
- withers (n.)
- 1570s, probably from a dialectal survival of Old English wiðer "against, contrary, opposite" (see with) + plural suffix. Possibly so called because the withers are the parts of the animal that oppose the load. Cf. German Widerrist "withers," from wider "against" + Rist "wrist."
- withhold (v.)
- c.1200, from with- "back, away" (see with) + holden "to hold" (see hold (v.)); probably a loan-translation of Latin retinere "to withhold." Related: Withheld; withholding. Past participle form withholden was still used 19c.
- within (adv.)
- Old English wiðinnan, literally "against the inside," see with + in.
- without (adv.)
- Old English wiðutan, literally "against the outside" (opposite of within), see with + out. As a word expressing lack or want of something (opposite of with), attested from c.1200. In use by late 14c. as a conjunction, short for without that.
- withstand (v.)
- Old English wiðstandan, from wið "against" (see with) + standan "to stand" (see stand (v.)); perhaps a loan-translation of Latin resistere "to resist" (see resist). Cf. Old Norse viðstanda, Old Frisian withstonda, Old High German widarstan. In 14c. and early 15c., withsit was in use with the same meaning. Related: Withstood; withstanding.
- withy (n.)
- Old English wiðig "willow, willow twig," from Proto-Germanic *withjon- "willow" (cf. Old Norse viðir, Danish vidje, Old High German wida, German Weide "willow"), from PIE *wei-ti-, suffixed form of root *wei- "to bend, twist" (cf. Avestan vaeiti- "osier," Greek itea "willow," Latin vitis "vine," Lithuanian vytis "willow twig," Polish witwa, Welsh gwden "willow," Russian vitvina "branch, bough").
- witless (adj.)
- Old English witleas; see wit (n.) + -less. Phrase scared witless attested from 1975. Related: Witlessly; witlessness.
- witness (n.)
- Old English witnes "attestation of fact, event, etc., from personal knowledge;" also "one who so testifies;" originally "knowledge, wit," formed from wit (n.) + -ness. Christian use (late 14c.) is as a literal translation of Greek martys (see martyr). Witness stand is recorded from 1853.
- witness (v.)
- c.1300, from witness (n.). Related: Witnessed; witnessing.
- witted (adj.)
- late 14c. in compounds, "having wits" (of a certain kind), from wit (n.).
- witticism (n.)
- 1670s, coined by Dryden from witty on model of criticism.
- witting (adj.)
- "aware," mid-14c. (implied in wittingly), present participle adjective from wit (v.).
- witty (adj.)
- Old English wittig "clever, wise;" see wit (n.) "intellect" + -y (2). Meaning "possessing sparkling wit" is recorded from 1580s.
- wive (v.)
- "to marry (a woman)," Old English wifian, from wif "woman" (see wife). Cf. Middle Dutch wiven.
- wizard (n.)
- mid-15c., "philosopher, sage," from Middle English wys "wise" (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. Cf. Lithuanian zynyste "magic," zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," all from zinoti "to know." The ground sense is perhaps "to know the future." The meaning "one with magical power" did not emerge distinctly until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being blurred in the Middle Ages. As a slang word meaning "excellent" it is recorded from 1922.
- wizardry (n.)
- 1580s, from wizard + -ry.
- wizen (v.)
- Old English wisnian, weosnian "to wither," cognate with Old Norse visna, Old High German wesanen "to dry up, shrivel, wither;" German verwesen "to decay, rot." Related: Wizened.
- woad (n.)
- Old English wad, from Proto-Germanic *waido- (cf. Danish vaid, Old Frisian wed, Middle Dutch wede, Dutch wede, Old High German weit, German Waid "woad"), probably cognate with Latin vitrium "glass" (see vitreous). Old type of blue dye processed from plant leaves, since superseded by indigo. French guède, Italian guado are Germanic loan-words.
- wobbegong (n.)
- type of Australian shark, 1852, an Aboriginal word.
- wobble (v.)
- 1650s, probably from Low German wabbeln "to wobble;" cognate with Old Norse vafla "hover about, totter," related to vafra "move unsteadily," from Proto-Germanic *wab- "to move back and forth" (see waver). The noun is attested from 1690s.
- Wobbly (n.)
- 1914, member of Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.). Probably some sort of elaboration of the W aspect of the acronym.
- Anglo-Saxon god, Old English, see Odin.
- woe (n.)
- Old English wa, a common exclamation of lament in many languages (cf. Latin væ, Greek oa, German weh, Lettish wai, Old Irish fe, Welsh gwae, Armenian vay). The noun is attested from late 12c., from the interjection.
- woebegone (adj.)
- c.1300, in me is wo bigone "woe has beset me," from woe + begon "to beset, surround."
- woeful (adj.)
- c.1300, "afflicted with sorrow," from woe + -ful. Weakened sense of "very bad" recorded by 1610s. Related: Woefully; woefulness.
- wog (n.)
- c.1920, "a lower-class babu shipping clerk" [Partridge]; later World War II British armed forces slang for "native of India" (especially as a servant or laborer), possibly shortened from golliwog. Many acronym origins have been proposed, none found satisfactory.
- wok (n.)
- 1952, from Cantonese.
- wold (n.)
- Old English wald (Anglian), weald (West Saxon, Kentish) "forest, wooded upland," from Proto-Germanic *walthuz (cf. Old Saxon and Old Frisian wald, Middle Dutch wold, Dutch woud, Old High German wald, German Wald "forest," Swedish vall "pasture," Old Norse völlr "soil, field, meadow"); perhaps connected to wild. The sense development from "forested upland" to "rolling open country" (c.1200) perhaps is from Scandinavian influence, or a testimony to the historical deforestation of Britain. Not current since mid-16c.; survives mainly in place names (cf. Cotswold).
- wolf (n.)
- Old English wulf, from Proto-Germanic *wulfaz (cf. Old Saxon wulf, Old Norse ulfr, Old Frisian, Dutch, Old High German, German wolf, Gothic wulfs), from PIE *wlqwos/*lukwos, from root *wlp-/*lup- (cf. Sanskrit vrkas, Avestan vehrka-; Albanian ulk; Old Church Slavonic vluku; Russian volcica; Lithuanian vilkas "wolf;" Old Persian Varkana- "Hyrcania," district southeast of the Caspian Sea, literally "wolf-land;" probably also Greek lykos, Latin lupus).
This manne can litle skyl ... to saue himself harmlesse from the perilous accidentes of this world, keping ye wulf from the doore (as they cal it). ["The Institution of a Gentleman," 1555]
Wolves as a symbol of lust are ancient, e.g. Roman slang lupa "whore," literally "she-wolf" (preserved in Spanish loba, Italian lupa, French louve). The equation of "wolf" and "prostitute, sexually voracious female" persisted into 12c., but by Elizabethan times wolves had become primarily symbolic of male lust. The specific use of wolf for "sexually aggressive male" first recorded 1847; wolf-whistle first attested 1952. The image of a wolf in sheep's skin is attested from c.1400. See here for a discussion of "wolf" in Indo-European history.
- wolf (v.)
- "eat like a wolf," 1862, from wolf (n.). Related: Wolfed; wolfing.
- wolfram (n.)
- 1757, from German Wolfram, wolform "iron tungstate" (1562), of obscure etymology. It looks like "wolf-cream" (from rahm "cream"), but the second element might be Middle High German ram (German Rahm) "dirty mark, soot;" if so, perhaps "so called in sign of contempt because it was regarded of lesser value than tin and caused a considerable loss of tin during the smelting process in the furnace" [Klein]. Or perhaps the word is originally a personal name, "wolf-raven."
- wolfsbane (n.)
- "aconite" (especially Aconitum lycoctonum), 1540s, from wolf + bane; a translation of Latin lycoctonum, from Greek lykotonon, from lykos "wolf" + base of kteinein "to kill."
- wolverine (n.)
- carnivorous mammal, 1610s, alteration of wolvering (1570s), of uncertain origin, possibly from wolv-, inflectional stem of wolf; or perhaps from wolver "one who behaves like a wolf" (1590s).
- woman (n.)
- late Old English wimman (plural wimmen), literally "woman-man," alteration of wifman (plural wifmen), a compound of wif "woman" (see wife) + man "human being" (in Old English used in reference to both sexes; see man (n.)). Cf. Dutch vrouwmens "wife," literally "woman-man."
The formation is peculiar to English and Dutch. Replaced older Old English wif and quean as the word for "female human being." The pronunciation of the singular altered in Middle English by the rounding influence of -w-; the plural retains the original vowel. Meaning "wife," now largely restricted to U.S. dialectal use, is attested from mid-15c. Women's liberation is attested from 1966; women's rights is from 1840, with an isolated example in 1630s.
- womanhood (n.)
- late 14c., "condition of being a woman," also "qualities or characteristics considered natural to a woman," from woman + -hood. Meaning "women collectively" is attested from 1520s.
- womaniser (n.)
- chiefly British English spelling of womanizer; see womanize.
- womanize (v.)
- 1590s, "to make effeminate," from woman + -ize. Sense of "to chase women, to go wenching" is attested from 1893. Related: Womanized; womanizer; womanizing.
- womb (n.)
- Old English wamb, womb "belly, uterus," from Proto-Germanic *wambo (cf. Old Norse vomb, Old Frisian wambe, Middle Dutch wamme, Dutch wam, Old High German wamba, German Wamme "belly, paunch," Gothic wamba "belly, womb," Old English umbor "child"), of unknown origin.