What is Wit?

Wit is derived from the Old English witan, meaning 'to know,' a term whose meaning has changed several times over the centuries. In the late Middle Ages, wit referred to intellect and intelligence as opposed to knowledge. During the Renaissance, it came to signify wisdom.

In the seventeenth century, when it began to suggest creativity or fancy, the term was frequently associated with a group we now call the metaphysical poets, writers prized for the originality and agility of their poetic expressions. In the eighteenth century, the Neoclassical Period, a reaction against the definition set in, and wit came to be associated not with ingenious twists and turns of fancy, but rather with judgment, reason, and the ability to articulate commonly held truths in an original and persuasive manner. Joseph Addison distinguished between true and false wit, according to its focus; true wit, he claimed, revealed similarities between apparently unlike ideas, whereas false wit associated unlike words through such ornamental devices such as puns.

Today, the meaning of wit is closest to the seventeenth-century definition, although we are likely to associate the term with comedy and laughter in addition to creativity. Wit is now most commonly thought of as clever expression – whether aggressive or harmless, that is, with or without derogatory intent toward someone or something in particular. We also tend to think of wit as being characterized by a mocking or paradoxical quality, evoking laughter through apt phrasing. Even today, however, wit retains the medieval sense of intelligence, insofar as it is viewed as an intellectual form of humor. Writers often cited for their wit include Aphra Behn, John Donne, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Dorothy Parker.

Published on 22 Sept. 2014 by Kedar Nath Sharma

Related Topics

Aphra Behn: Biography

John Donne: Biography

Alexander Pope: Biography

Jane Austen: Biography

Oscar Wilde: Biography

George Bernard Shaw: Biography