AskDefine | Define wit

The Collaborative Dictionary

Wit \Wit\ (w[i^]t), v. t. & i. [inf. (To) Wit; pres. sing. Wot; pl. Wite; imp. Wist(e); p. p. Wist; p. pr. & vb. n. Wit(t)ing. See the Note below.] [OE. witen, pres. ich wot, wat, I know (wot), imp. wiste, AS. witan, pres. w[=a]t, imp. wiste, wisse; akin to OFries. wita, OS. witan, D. weten, G. wissen, OHG. wizzan, Icel. vita, Sw. veta, Dan. vide, Goth. witan to observe, wait I know, Russ. vidiete to see, L. videre, Gr. ?, Skr. vid to know, learn; cf. Skr. vid to find. ????. Cf. History, Idea, Idol, -oid, Twit, Veda, Vision, Wise, a. & n., Wot.] To know; to learn. "I wot and wist alway." --Chaucer. [1913 Webster] [1913 Webster] Note: The present tense was inflected as follows; sing. 1st pers. wot; 2d pers. wost, or wot(t)est; 3d pers. wot, or wot(t)eth; pl. witen, or wite. The following variant forms also occur; pres. sing. 1st & 3d pers. wat, woot; pres. pl. wyten, or wyte, weete, wote, wot; imp. wuste (Southern dialect); p. pr. wotting. Later, other variant or corrupt forms are found, as, in Shakespeare, 3d pers. sing. pres. wots. [1913 Webster] Brethren, we do you to wit [make you to know] of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia. --2 Cor. viii.
[1913 Webster] Thou wost full little what thou meanest. --Chaucer. [1913 Webster] We witen not what thing we prayen here. --Chaucer. [1913 Webster] When that the sooth in wist. --Chaucer. [1913 Webster] Note: This verb is now used only in the infinitive, to wit, which is employed, especially in legal language, to call attention to a particular thing, or to a more particular specification of what has preceded, and is equivalent to namely, that is to say. [1913 Webster]
Wit \Wit\, n. [AS. witt, wit; akin to OFries. wit, G. witz, OHG. wizz[imac], Icel. vit, Dan. vid, Sw. vett. [root]133. See Wit, v.] [1913 Webster]
Mind; intellect; understanding; sense. [1913 Webster] Who knew the wit of the Lord? or who was his counselor? --Wyclif (Rom. xi. 34). [1913 Webster] A prince most prudent, of an excellent And unmatched wit and judgment. --Shak. [1913 Webster] Will puts in practice what wit deviseth. --Sir J. Davies. [1913 Webster] He wants not wit the dander to decline. --Dryden. [1913 Webster]
A mental faculty, or power of the mind; -- used in this sense chiefly in the plural, and in certain phrases; as, to lose one's wits; at one's wits' end, and the like. "Men's wittes ben so dull." --Chaucer. [1913 Webster] I will stare him out of his wits. --Shak. [1913 Webster]
Felicitous association of objects not usually connected, so as to produce a pleasant surprise; also. the power of readily combining objects in such a manner. [1913 Webster] The definition of wit is only this, that it is a propriety of thoughts and words; or, in other terms, thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject. --Dryden. [1913 Webster] Wit which discovers partial likeness hidden in general diversity. --Coleridge. [1913 Webster] Wit lying most in the assemblage of ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant pictures in the fancy. --Locke. [1913 Webster]
A person of eminent sense or knowledge; a man of genius, fancy, or humor; one distinguished for bright or amusing sayings, for repartee, and the like. [1913 Webster] In Athens, where books and wits were ever busier than in any other part of Greece, I find but only two sorts of writings which the magistrate cared to take notice of; those either blasphemous and atheistical, or libelous. --Milton. [1913 Webster] Intemperate wits will spare neither friend nor foe. --L'Estrange. [1913 Webster] A wit herself, Amelia weds a wit. --Young. [1913 Webster] The five wits, the five senses; also, sometimes, the five qualities or faculties, common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation, and memory. --Chaucer. Nares. [1913 Webster] But my five wits nor my five senses can Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee. --Shak. [1913 Webster] Syn: Ingenuity; humor; satire; sarcasm; irony; burlesque. Usage: Wit, Humor. Wit primarily meant mind; and now denotes the power of seizing on some thought or occurrence, and, by a sudden turn, presenting it under aspects wholly new and unexpected -- apparently natural and admissible, if not perfectly just, and bearing on the subject, or the parties concerned, with a laughable keenness and force. "What I want," said a pompous orator, aiming at his antagonist, "is common sense." "Exactly!" was the whispered reply. The pleasure we find in wit arises from the ingenuity of the turn, the sudden surprise it brings, and the patness of its application to the case, in the new and ludicrous relations thus flashed upon the view. Humor is a quality more congenial to the English mind than wit. It consists primarily in taking up the peculiarities of a humorist (or eccentric person) and drawing them out, as Addison did those of Sir Roger de Coverley, so that we enjoy a hearty, good-natured laugh at his unconscious manifestation of whims and oddities. From this original sense the term has been widened to embrace other sources of kindly mirth of the same general character. In a well-known caricature of English reserve, an Oxford student is represented as standing on the brink of a river, greatly agitated at the sight of a drowning man before him, and crying out, "O that I had been introduced to this gentleman, that I might save his life!" The "Silent Woman" of Ben Jonson is one of the most humorous productions, in the original sense of the term, which we have in our language. [1913 Webster]

Word Net



1 a message whose ingenuity or verbal skill or incongruity has the power to evoke laughter [syn: humor, humour, witticism, wittiness]
2 mental ability; "he's got plenty of brains but no common sense" [syn: brain, brainpower, learning ability, mental capacity, mentality]
3 a witty amusing person who makes jokes [syn: wag, card]

Moby Thesaurus

ESP, IQ, Italian hand, ability, acumen, acuteness, address, adeptness, adroitness, airmanship, alertness, apprehension, art, artfulness, artifice, artisanship, artistry, assume, astuteness, awareness, balance, banana, brain, brains, bravura, brilliance, burlesquer, cageyness, caliber, callidity, canniness, capability, capacity, caricaturist, clairvoyance, cleverness, clown, comedian, comic, command, competence, comprehension, conceit, conceive, conception, control, coordination, craft, craftiness, craftsmanship, cunning, cunningness, cutup, deductive power, deftness, dexterity, dexterousness, dextrousness, diplomacy, discernment, discrimination, divination, droll, efficiency, epigrammatist, esemplastic power, esprit, expertise, facility, fine Italian hand, finesse, foxiness, funnyman, gag writer, gagman, gagster, gamesmanship, gather, grace, grasp, gray matter, grip, guile, handiness, head, horsemanship, humor, humorist, ideation, imagine, ingeniousness, ingenuity, insidiousness, insight, integrative power, intellect, intellectual grasp, intellectual power, intellectualism, intellectuality, intelligence, intelligence quotient, inventiveness, ironist, jester, joker, jokesmith, jokester, keenness, know-how, knowledge, lampooner, lucidity, madcap, marbles, marksmanship, mastership, mastery, mental age, mental capacity, mental grasp, mental ratio, mentality, mind, mother wit, native wit, one-upmanship, parodist, penetration, perception, percipience, perspicacity, power of mind, practical ability, prankster, proficiency, prowess, prudence, punner, punster, quick-wittedness, quickness, quipster, rationality, readiness, reason, reasoning power, reckon, reparteeist, resource, resourcefulness, sagaciousness, sagacity, sageness, saneness, sanity, sapience, satanic cunning, satirist, savoir-faire, savvy, scope of mind, seamanship, sense, senses, sensing, sharpness, shiftiness, shrewdness, skill, skillfulness, slipperiness, slyness, smartness, sneakiness, sophistry, stealth, stealthiness, style, subtilty, subtleness, subtlety, suppleness, suppose, tact, tactfulness, technical brilliance, technical mastery, technical skill, technique, think, thinking power, timing, trickiness, understanding, virtuosity, wag, wagwit, wariness, wiles, wiliness, wisdom, wisecracker, witlessness, witling, wizardry, workmanship, zany



  • a UK , /wɪt/, /wIt/
  • a US , /wɪt/, /wIt/
  • Rhymes with: -ɪt


Etymology 1

From witt, from from |weid-, wid-. Cognate with Dutch weet, German Witz, Latin videre ("to see") and Swedish vett. Compare wise.


  1. (now usually in plural) One's mind or sense; sanity.
    Have you completely lost your wits?
  2. Intellectual ability; faculty of thinking, reasoning.
    Where she has gone to is beyond the wit of man to say.
  3. The ability to think quickly; mental cleverness, especially wittiness.
    My father had a quick wit and a steady hand.
  4. (obsolete except in set phrases) Intelligence; common sense.
    The opportunity was right in front of you, and you didn't even have the wit to take it!
  5. Spoken humour, especially when clever or quick.
    The best man's speech was hilarious, full of wit and charm.
  6. rare colloquial A person who tells funny anecdotes or jokes; someone witty.
    Your friend is quite a wit, isn't he?
Mind; sanity
Intellectual ability
Ability to think quickly
  • Czech: vtip, důvtip
  • Finnish: sukkeluus, nokkeluus, sutkaus
  • Italian: arguzia, genio
  • Portuguese: agudeza, agudez
  • Romanian: schepsis
  • Spanish: agudeza, inteligencia, ingenio, mentalidad, gracia
  • Turkish: nükte
Spoken humour, particularly that thought of quick
  • Spanish: listo
A person who tells funny anecdotes or jokes

Etymology 2

From witan, from , from |weid-, wid-. Cognate with Dutch weten, German wissen, Swedish veta, and Latin videre. Compare guide.


  1. To know, be aware of .
    I wot not what to.
    You are meddling in matters that men should not wit of.
    God wot…


Usage notes

  • As a preterite-present verb, the third-person singular indicative form is not |wits but |wot  ; the plural indicative forms conform to the infinitive: |we wit, |ye wit, |they wit.

Derived terms

rel-top Derived terms









  1. white
    De wand is wit.
    The wall is white.


  1. white i color
    Wit is alle kleuren ineens.
    White is all colors at once.
  2. A person with blond hair.
    De Witte van Zichem.
    The blond boy from Zichem (a famous book).

Old English


From , from |wed-, a suffixed form of |wei- (see we). Cognate with Old Norse vit, Gothic 𐍅𐌹𐍄, and Lithuanian vedu.


  • /wit/, /wIt/


  1. We two; nominative dual form of .

Old High German


From , whence also Old English wid and Old Norse víðr.


Wit is a form of intellectual humour. MANDY (person) is someone skilled in making witty remarks. Forms of wit include: the quip and the repartee.

Forms of wit

As in the wit of Parker's set, the Algonquin Round Table, witty remarks may be intentionally cruel (as in many epigrams), and perhaps more ingenious than funny.
A quip is an observation or saying that has some wit but perhaps descends into sarcasm, or otherwise is short of point; a witticism also suggests the diminutive. Repartee is the wit of the quick answer and capping comment: the snappy comeback and neat retort. (Wilde: "I wish I'd said that." Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will".)
In French one can distinguish between the bon mot, a witty remark actually produced, and the esprit d'escalier, the thing one should have said that typically comes to mind too late to be of any use.

Wit defined

In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson states that the original meaning of wit is "the powers of the mind; the mental faculties; the intellects"; he also defines wit as "quickness of fancy", among the nine definitions. In Webster's Dictionary, wit is defined as "the association of ideas in a manner natural, but unusual and striking, so as to produce surprise joined with pleasure".
An episode of television series The Simpsons defined wit, in Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield as "nothing more than an incisive observation, humorously phrased and delivered with impeccable timing."
Shakespeare's Polonius said, "Brevity is the soul of wit."
Another possible definition of wit, or humor, loosely attributable to Freud, is "anger, turned sideways".
Wit can also mean intelligence, sharpness and cleverness. A witty person is likely to be intelligent.

Wit in poetry

Wit in poetry is characteristic of metaphysical poetry as a style, and was prevalent in the time of English playwright Shakespeare, who admonished pretension with the phrase "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit". It may combine word play with conceptual thinking, as a kind of verbal display requiring attention, without intending to be laugh-aloud funny; in fact wit can be a thin disguise for more poignant feelings that are being versified. English poet John Donne is the representative of this style of poetry.

Further meanings

More generally, one's wits are one's intellectual powers of all types. Native wit — meaning the wits with which one is born — is closely synonymous with common sense. To live by one's wits is to be an opportunist, not always of the scrupulous kind. To have one's wits about one is to be alert and capable of quick reasoning.

Famous wits

John Wilkes was famous in the 18th Century for his wit in response to insults. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx are considered archetypal 19th and 20th century wits — sometimes even having the remarks of others attributed to them. Also of the twentieth century was British prime minister Winston Churchill, with perhaps the most well documented witticisms of his time. Oliver St. John Gogarty was a renowned Dublin wit and surgeon, while John Philpot Curran was an Irish lawyer who would disrupt court hearings with his witticisms. Ksawery Tartakower is usually described as chess grandmaster and wit. John Lennon of famous pop group The Beatles was notorious for his sharp and cutting wit, often being labeled "the witty Beatle". The late David Lange, the Prime Minister of New Zealand in the 1980s, immortalized with his nuclear-free legislation, is another well-known historical figure who is remembered for his quick wit.


  • D. W. Jefferson, "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit" in Essays in Criticism, 1(1951), 225-48
wit in German: Schlagfertigkeit
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