The Grammarphobia Blog

At wit’s end

Q: I find the English language challenging. Why does “ought” rhyme with “thought,” but “tough” with “rough”? And why do we say “to wit” instead of “to whit”? I’m at my wit’s end.

A: People love to point to words like “ought” and “tough” as examples of how wacky English spellings can be. Not so wacky when you look closely. I recently wrote a blog item about these “gh” words and other spelling oddities.

As for why it’s “to wit” and not “to whit,” we’ll have to go back in time, very far back.

In Anglo-Saxon days, a now-archaic verb “wit” meant something like to know, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s earliest example of this usage is in King Alfred’s translation of Boethius from around the year 888.

The expression “to wit,” first recorded in 1320, originally meant “it is to be observed, noted, or ascertained.” Later (around 1400), it came to mean “to be sure” or “indeed” or “namely.”

The “wit” part of the phrase was written all sorts of ways for the first few hundred years: “wite,” “witen,” “wetynge,” and so on.

It wasn’t until the late 16th century that the expression “to wit” took on its modern meaning: namely or that is to say. The earliest citation in the OED (from 1577) says “the beginning of vertue is of Nature, to wyt of Perfect Nature.”

As a nature junkie, I especially like this citation from an 1875 book about the history of Maine: “Thrice nine ridges … to wit, nine of bog, nine of smooth and nine of wood.”

“Whit,” a much newer word, means an itty-bitty amount or the tiniest part of something. It first showed up in the 16th century during the early days of Modern English.

And that, to wit, is that.

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