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I don't get the phrase "a word to the wise". Shouldn't it be "a word from the wise"? Isn't the person with the word the one with the wisdom? Isn't the person receiving the word the one in need of it?

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The complete proverb is A word to the wise is sufficient. You're sposta know the "is sufficient" part; otherwise, you're not among the wise, and hafta have things explained. The idea is that smart people catch on fast. –  John Lawler Jul 4 '14 at 18:29
@JohnLawler The elevated register of hafta compared with the more pedestrian gotsta betrays your ivorine pedigree. :) –  tchrist Jul 4 '14 at 19:32
I've never heard gotsta; gotta is what I hear and say. –  John Lawler Jul 4 '14 at 19:37
@JohnLawler +1 for the info; I will create a sock-puppet account now just to +1 the "sposta". :) Just kidding. –  Kaz Jul 4 '14 at 20:20
I'd say that most people using the expression don't analyse it (and certainly not its origins), using it as a paraphrase of 'I think you should know ...'. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 at 22:31

5 Answers 5

As John Lawler says, the full form of the phrase is a word to the wise is sufficient. A word to the wise is usually employed as a discreet warning in which the ‘word’ is very brief—either the utterance which immediately follows or this utterance itself.

A word to the wise—Paul knows.
A word to the wise—

The sense is “I need say no more than a word to alert you—you’re smart enough to understand what I leave unsaid.”

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Regardless of the etymology or origins of the phrase, Mr E. Upvoter's is the current attitude of the phrase. And since Mr E's presumption's structure holds grammatical integrity, I am falling for his answer. It does not matter what the forefathers had intended for the US Constitution, but how our Supreme Court today interprets the Constitution. –  Blessed Geek Jul 4 '14 at 19:11
Interestingly, based on Ngram searches for "a word to the wise" and "the wise is sufficient" (Ngram doesn't allow units of more than five words), "a word to the wise is sufficient" has very roughly paralleled "a word to the wise" in British English, but in American English it seems that "a word to the wise" by itself has become much more frequent since the late 1970s or so. –  Matt Gutting Jul 4 '14 at 19:11
We should not ignore or delegitmise the prevalence due to US English etymology, even if a certain usage had actually originated from an earlier phrase of British origin. Because and anyway, just look around ... Why have Britishers acquiesced to spelling program instead of programme in most cases? In fact, why do most British and Australian singers even sing in US/Canada pronunciation? Just as English had imported French and butchered those words, so now please let us import British phrases and let us have our hegemonic privilege of butchering such phrases. Besides it's 4th July. –  Blessed Geek Jul 4 '14 at 19:23
No argument with that! I just wanted to point out that the change has apparently only occurred in American English. –  Matt Gutting Jul 4 '14 at 19:38
Well, the same thing happened in Latin, where it came from in the first place. In Latin it was Verbum sapienti satis est, and verb sap is the way it was usually abbreviated. Since the phrase is used to give somebody a heads-up discreetly, it means the same as "a wink is as good as a nod". Or, more blatantly, "wink, wink, noodge, noodge, know what I mean?". Contraction is completely natural with stuff like this; it's not sposta be public and clear. –  John Lawler Jul 4 '14 at 19:42

It implies in a backwards way:

If you're wise you'll listen to these words.

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This should be the accepted answer. –  Blessed Geek Jul 4 '14 at 19:12
@BlessedGeek Without notes about the origin of the phrase, the answer is incomplete. I believe that the above is how people understand the abbreviated proverb now; the living "word to the wise" used today does mean "a word targeted at those who are wise, who will consequently heed it". This is because people who use it are not all aware of the origin. –  Kaz Jul 4 '14 at 20:25
@Kaz the OP didn't ask for origins, they wanted help to understand it. I don't have the knowledge, time or facilities to write a good answer right now, I just wanted to help the OP. I might improve it, if the other answers leave anything out. –  Dom Jul 4 '14 at 20:30
@BlessedGeek A link to the origin would provide a citation for his assertion; allowing us to verify its verity. As it stands he provides a false answer. If you read stonyb's answer you'll see that providing the origin was essential to understanding of the actual meaning due to the fact that the provided phrase is an abbreviation of the original idiom. –  Dave Magner Jul 4 '14 at 23:21
He can be addressed directly with issues. He does not appreciate the way some of ELUs users are very rude. Down voting an answer that's not even wrong is poor practice. But I understand how hard it must be to live with your head lodged firmly inside your derrier. –  Dom Jul 4 '14 at 23:25

Proverbs 17:10 A rebuke strikes deeper into a discerning person than a hundred blows into a fool.

In other words, the wise learn quickly and from few words as in "A word to the wise"

A fool on the other hand cannot learn no matter how many words or even blows.

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The context is, "I am warning you about a dangerous condition."

"A word to the wise" means, "A wise person will know what I mean, as soon as I say "beware."

A foolish person will need a lot longer warning/explanation than just one word.

Here's a similar expression

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I'm not sure the sense is really about the brevity of the counsel. I think the Latin would have been more emphatic if that were the case. I interpret it more like "experience is the lesson book of fools" - i.e., words count as much or more with the wise than personal experiences do.

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The modern meaning does not need to be identical to the original (insisting it does is the 'etymological fallacy'). Grammarist goes with the brevity explanation ('Even when the word is a long sentence, the idiom should not be phrased words to the wise, since the meaning of the idiom is that one word will suffice.') as does the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (with a connotation of there being a hint involved). I agree with that the most usual meaning nowadays is simply 'Here's some good advice ...' –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 11 at 22:28

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