Etymology Usage

Is Peggy wise or wizened?

Q: This is from the actress Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men: “I started the show way more confident, way more wizened, way more aware of the world around me than Peggy was, but over the years she’s caught up quite a bit.” Wizened? Wow, she started more shriveled than her character, and now they’re both old and dried up. I wish these stars had grammar stylists as well as fashion stylists.

A: You’re right. Elizabeth Moss, who plays the secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olson on the AMC series, goofed during her March 8, 2012, interview with the New York Post’s Page Six.

She obviously meant “wise,” not “wizened,” but this is a mistake of usage, not grammar. The word “wise” means discerning, sensible, and sagacious, while the adjective “wizened” means withered, shriveled, and dried up.

The adjective “wizened” showed up in English in the early 1500s, but it’s ultimately derived from an older verb, “wizen” (wisnian in Old English), which first appeared in the late 800s and meant (as you might imagine), to dry up, shrivel, or wither.

The adjective “wise,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, first showed up in the Old English poem Beowulf (circa 1000): “Thu eart mægenes strang, and on mode frod, wis wordcwida!” (You are strong of might and wise in spirit, wise of words!)

We’ve expanded on the OED citation, and changed the runic letter thorn to “th.”

We’ll end this with a look at “wisenheimer,” a slang American term for a smart aleck that showed up in the early 20th century, according to published references in the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The Show Girl and Her Friends, a 1904 book by the humorist Roy McCardell: “He wants to know some good way to reduce his weight. … You don’t know any such a way? No? Why, I thought you was a wisenheimer.”

Finally, here’s a comment from H. L. Mencken in The American Language (1919):

“Several years ago -heimer had a great vogue in slang, and was rapidly done to death. But wiseheimer remains in colloquial use as a facetious synonym for smart-aleck, and after awhile it may gradually acquire dignity.”

Well, “wiseheimer” has acquired an “n” and 338,000 hits on Google, but as far as we can tell it hasn’t acquired all that much dignity.

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