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?

  • 1
    Yes - try googling the phrase "wet with oil".
    – user11752
    Jun 1, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 21:14
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    This is not opinion-seeking; this is a question about usage. Clearly, the dictionary doesn't limit the liquid to water – and the O.P. exercised due diligence by providing a definition which showed that. Luckily, most ELU users, instead of focusing on the word think in the bottom-line question, appear to be focusing on the word use instead. This is a legitimate question and its upvotes are not unwarranted.
    – J.R.
    Jun 3, 2013 at 8:27
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    @Kris: There's another place to ask about usage, it's called ELU. It's a community of (mostly) helpful people who like to ponder questions like this, and sometimes use the sources you've mention to help answer inquiries like this one. Once again, the whole band is out of step except for you.
    – J.R.
    Jun 3, 2013 at 13:50

7 Answers 7


Technically speaking


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.

  • 1
    Exactly. Or, it is said that epoxy resin "wets out" glass fibers.
    – Kaz
    Jun 5, 2013 at 23:08

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.

  • 3
    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, 2013 at 20:32
  • Yes you might say that an organic solvent will wet a hydrophobic surface that water won't
    – mgb
    Jun 1, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 8:28

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

  • Exactly, so wet implies water.
    – terdon
    Jun 2, 2013 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, 2013 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, 2013 at 6:09
  • "The thing in the flux that allows it to spread effectively is called the wetting agent. A wetting agent is also known as a surfactant. A good wetting agent leads to the flux being more efficient. You end up using less flux to solder an area than if there was no wetting agent." from superiorflux.com/role-of-flux
    – Conrado
    May 2, 2020 at 0:58

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.


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.


It depends on what sense of the word you're using.

As an adjective: Wet alone means it's soaked/covered in a liquid.

But it could look and feel wet independently: Something polished and/or covered in clear lacquer could look wet but feel dry. Clothes that are cold can feel wet without being wet or looking wet. Something covered in white-spirit is wet (covered in liquid that you can wring out), looks wet, but feels strangely dry.

As a verb: Wet means covering something with a liquid.

(Probably many other definitions too...)


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.

  • 2
    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"? Jun 1, 2013 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. Jun 1, 2013 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. Jun 1, 2013 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, 2013 at 20:36
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    @nswainwright a body can quite easily be both drowned and perfectly dry. Just wait a few hours, unless I miss my guess the body is now dry. It is still, however, drowned.
    – terdon
    Jun 2, 2013 at 18:39

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