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Wet can be used to describe being dowsed in liquids such as beer, milk, juice, urine etc. All of these, however, are water-based. Can wet be used for a liquid that has no water? Can you be wet by mercury? Or liquid nitrogen?

I know I wouldn't use it for mercury, but that may be because mercury would not actually stick to anything it was splashed on so it wouldn't even look wet. I could live with drenched, dowsed, or immersed but wet? Does wet really imply water or is it just that we tend to get splashed by water-based liquids and so the word is most often associated with water?

This definition states

consisting of, containing, covered with, or soaked with liquid (as water)

What do you think, would anyone use wet for something completely unrelated to water?

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Yes - try googling the phrase "wet with oil". –  Mark Bannister Jun 1 '13 at 18:24
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@MarkBannister most of the results of that search are from a few forums on car engines, not necessarily any indication of common usage. Google Ngrams shows very little usage of the phrase. –  terdon Jun 1 '13 at 18:29
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@Mitch I'm not sure, it is the paint that is wet, not the surface that is painted. –  terdon Jun 1 '13 at 21:14
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@terdon is absorbency or porosity a factor in determining ability to be weted? Look at the definition again. The liquid does not have to mix with the adjacent material for either it or the adjacent material to be considered 'wet'. Both the wetting material and the wetted material are 'wet'. Consider another example from the automotive domain that many might be familiar with: 'a wet spark-plug'. Gasoline or 'petrol' is 'wet'. A 'flooded' engine suffers from 'wet' spark plugs. –  JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 5:52
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You do not seem to have accepted the dictionary definition. In which case, you should have worked further to find a satisfactory answer, which obviously you have not. NARQ. Wet applies to any liquid. –  Kris Jun 2 '13 at 7:17
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6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Technically speaking

Wetting:

Wetting is the ability of a liquid to maintain contact with a solid surface, resulting from intermolecular interactions when the two are brought together. The degree of wetting (wettability) is determined by a force balance between adhesive and cohesive forces.

No need for the liquid to be water:

Trifluoromethanesulfonic acid wets Teflon but water‐monohydrate mixtures containing less than 60% of the monohydrate exhibit high contact angles with Teflon.

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Exactly. Or, it is said that epoxy resin "wets out" glass fibers. –  Kaz Jun 5 '13 at 23:08
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Two words: WET PAINT. Not all paint is water-based.

Also, we can consult a dictionary:

wet (adj.) moistened, covered, saturated, etc, with water or some other liquid
(from Collins, emphasis added)

It's very much context-dependent. Many things can be wet with various solutions or solvents during a manufacturing process. For example, this brings back memories from my days in the darkroom:

Color toners are applied in the darkroom after the final rinse. The toning bath is placed in a separate tray, and the wet print is submerged into the solution. > ref.

Most of the time, the liquid in question will be water-based, but that's because those are the liquids most of us deal with on a day-to-day basis. Yet I don't think this creates a restriction on the word's use, it just defines an area where we're most familiar.

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Wet paint is a good point, I would use wet even if I knew I was referring to an oil-based paint. Toners are water-based though so the same argument applies. I have read some dictionary definitions but they don't specify which other liquids :). Still, would you personally say wet with oil? –  terdon Jun 1 '13 at 20:32
    
Yes you might say that an organic solvent will wet a hydrophobic surface that water won't –  mgb Jun 1 '13 at 20:54
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I might not say "wet with oil", but I might say something like this: "When putting the piston back in the cylinder, the cylinder must be well-lubricated. Make sure it's good and wet." Doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. –  J.R. Jun 1 '13 at 22:44
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The word "wet" is used with a technical meaning in chemistry, I believe. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wetting or Google "wet chemistry" to try to find out about that. Adding detergent to water results in something wetter than the water alone... –  GEdgar Jun 2 '13 at 0:58
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@Kris: RE: Your answer just means the post is a NARQ. What a preposterous thought! I'd think it's the other way around – because a question has an answer, then it is a real question. Aren't questions supposed to have answers? Besides, even my counterexample has flaws. In the case of a freshly-painted bench, the painter's sign isn't usually interpreted to that mean the bench is wet with paint, it simply means the paint itself hasn't dried yet. I think it's an interesting question about how we use the word wet. I agree w/ the others; this is one of the better questions asked in some time. –  J.R. Jun 2 '13 at 8:28
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Chemists apply the term to water in an unusual way: water can make other liquids wet.

The other liquids are usually organic solvents. One of the reasons for these solvents is that the presence of water is a bad thing for whatever the chemist is trying to do. A wet solvent is usually a bad thing, and the term is used even if the amount of water is very small (usually it is employed when the water is a problem).

Example usage: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11486383

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Exactly, so wet implies water. –  terdon Jun 2 '13 at 1:53
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@terdon It does in this case, but even within chemistry it would be perfectly acceptable to call a solid wet when water isn't involved, because, well, how else are you going to describe the situation of having a liquid where it shouldn't be. –  Lucas Jun 2 '13 at 2:26
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Molten metal is also 'wet' and molten metal certainly contains very little 'water'. For a practical example of this, consider tin/silver, lead solder, brass/bronze, iron smelting, steel welding, and many other similar practices that deal with 'wet' metals. –  JustinC Jun 2 '13 at 6:09
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English is not my native language, I might be wrong here

To me, wet carries a connotation of coldness with it (more than e.g. moist). Even in the case of boiling water I would rather connect the word with its rapid cooling towards room temperature, rather than its constant-temperature state while in a heated kettle.

This would give rise to a definition as

Moistened with a fluid sufficiently volatile for evaporative cooling to cause a noticable drop in temperature of the covered object.

or perhaps, more in accordance with J.R.'s example,

Moistened with a fluid of similar volatility as water.

This is, as we know, true for water, also for alcohol or gasoline. It is not true for e.g. heavier oils, which seems to fit – one wouldn't normally describe lubricated items as wet (...except, of course, for one particular example, where however the lubricant is water-based...), it would constitute an unusual emphasis. Even less likely would you describe something as wet with sulphuric acid, or molasses, or molten butter, which differ from water in their much higher viscosity and again much lower volatility.

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Wetting has nothing to do with temperature, or the name of the liquid.

Wetting of a surface by any liquid is as someone noted above determined by a balance of forces, between those forces which cause the fluid to prefer to associate with itself (cohesion) and those which cause it to prefer to associate with a surface.

To wet means to adhere to a surface. That surface can be of a solid, or another liquid.

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I'd say no. "Wet" carries a connotation of non-disastrous. Someone covered in sulfuric acid is not going to be described as wet. Neither is someone who's just survived horrific flooding of a nearby river. We wouldn't even just use "wet" if it were important papers or a million-dollar-winning lottery ticket; we'd say something like "waterlogged beyond recognition." "Soaked," "drenched" (your suggestion), and the like, yes, but simply "wet" – no. That's what something/someone is that just got caught in the rain.

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Hmm I see your point, but I'm not sure it's that essential a difference: I agree that you wouldn't normally call ruined papers "wet" in a novel or a news broadcast; but I think something like a forensic report might still call them "wet"? –  Cerberus Jun 1 '13 at 19:17
    
I think we could call them "wet." But in doing so we'd be consciously understating. A forensic report might say "wet," but it wouldn't carry the implication of "destroyed," which agrees with me. –  nswainwright Jun 1 '13 at 19:24
    
"Briefly wet", perhaps, as a clinical remark. But I think you can get a sense of wetness from other liquids, provided their tactile impression isn't too far from that of water, and they're absorbed by similar materials. Alcohols come to mind, except that they evaporate too fast to really provide a drench. I'm sure there are many other nonlethal liquids with the appropriate physical and chemical characteristics (there are lots of compounds), but I don't know enough practical chemistry to specify many. –  John Lawler Jun 1 '13 at 19:36
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I'd also like to point out that if you pour a kettle of boiling water over someone they will be undeniably wet despite the clearly disastrous consequences. I'm not sure about this distinction. A drowned body recovered from a river is both dead and wet. –  terdon Jun 1 '13 at 20:36
    
As far as a potential "non-disastrous" distinction, "scalded" is a better descriptor for the first person, and "drowned" better for the second. Yes, they are wet, but the word is inadequate. Going back to the original question, though, you're again talking solely about water. –  nswainwright Jun 2 '13 at 0:07
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