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Sunday, 27 December 2015

The nature of wit

Snff?  Eh? What?

Oh, yes, sorry, I drifted off there for a bit. I am hard at work writing and forgot to post anything here. No matter, here's something I prepared earlier.

To most of us, the word 'wit' appears either in the form of somebody being witty or in some way having lost their wits, and given that, it is a little hard to deal with the Biblical and formally legal expression 'to wit'. King Henry uses the expression, just before Gloucester, the future Richard III stabs him in Henry VI, Part 3. Henry tells Gloucester:

Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigest deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

This reference to Gloucester's hunchback turns out to be an unwise career move on Henry's part. Again, at the end of Act II in The Merchant of Venice, a servant tells Portia

Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify th' approaching of his lord,
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets;
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath,
Gifts of rich value.

So what is this wit that the characters speak of? It comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning 'to know', and that is precisely what 'to wit' means. Variations on the term even turn up in languages like Czech, where a bear is called medved, because, as every reader of Winnie the Pooh knows, bears have a serious interest in honey.

Now honey, which yields us mead, even today, is medd in Welsh, mádhu in Sanskrit, and meodu in Old English, so it should not surprise us if the Czechs call their honey med. The second half of medved is our 'wit' in English, or wissen in German, or veta in Swedish, while in Sanskrit, we find four collections of knowledge called the Vedas. In other words, the bear, to the Czechs, is the 'honey knower'.

The verb 'wit' even turns up in an inflected form, as 'wot', mainly in poetical works, so we should not be surprised to find it awaiting us at every turn in Shakespeare, as in this comment from Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra:

O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse; for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st?
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men.

Over time, the root has buried itself deep within the language. A wise person was one who knew things, and wisdom and knowledge were seen as the same, and even a wizard seems to come from that source. A witch, however, may be different — in Old English, a male witch was a wicca, while a female witch was a wicce. Some of the 'witch' trees, like witch hazel, though, are entirely free of witchery, coming instead from the linguistic root that gives us 'wicker', and meaning pliable, easily bent.

And just to confuse the issue, there is another Old English word that we now render as 'withy', generally meaning the twigs of a willow or similar tree, and sharing an origin with the Latin word for a vine, vitis, which we recognise today only in the form of viticulture. But while we may be assured that in vino veritas, in wine there is truth, there is no trace of knowledge on the vine, though intelligence of a sort often travels by way of the grapevine.

Knowledge can be found elsewhere, though. The 'wiseacre' who seems to be a modern term of contempt, has an ancient history, going back more than 400 years to a time when the wiseacre was a wise-sayer or soothsayer, not unlike the Dutch wijsseggher of the same period, or the German Weissager, meaning the same thing.

Nowadays, we seem to relate wit to a rapid response, as in a witticism, or having a quick wit. Whatever wit was, though, Francis Bacon thought it was undesirable in court, when he observed that "Judges ought to be more Learned, then Wittie".

There is one wit that is essential in any legal hearing, and that is the person called before the court to reveal what they know: the possessor of knowledge, the all-knowingness we call 'the witness'.

There is a bird of the curlew family known as the godwit, but this does not seem to have any particularly good theistic connections, and I decline to speculate in any way, shape or form about the peewit.

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