The Grammarphobia Blog

Catcher in the wry

Q: I’m curious about an expression that’s recently caught my eye: “a rye wit.” I can’t find anything in my dictionary on the word “rye” beyond its use as a noun for a grain, a whiskey, or a male gypsy. Am I misspelling it?

A: The adjective you want is spelled “wry.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as meaning “dryly or obliquely humorous; sardonic, ironic.”

Oddly, though, the word wasn’t used in precisely this way until the 20th century. The OED‘s first citation for this meaning is from Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928): “He smiles with a wry amusement for a second.”

Previously, a “wry” smile was one made with a facial expression of distaste or dislike. But the adjective was used in different senses when it first entered English in the 16th century. It originally meant bent or twisted or distorted from the straight and narrow.

The adjective can be traced to a very old and mostly obsolete verb from old Germanic sources: “wry,” first used in the 800s. It originally meant to turn or wend, and later to swerve or turn aside or twist. This is where we get the adjective and adverb “awry,” as in “Everything went awry.”

Some other words believed to be related are “writhe,” “wrist,” “wrench,” and “wriggle.”

The word “rye” (the food grain) has been traced all the way back to the year 725! We get it from Old Norse.

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