...and if not, where'd it go? One obvious venture is that the noun "wit", in the sense of cleverness and general know-how, has an etymological affinity with the Old English witen, "to know", and which Merriam-Webster informs me the "wit" in to wit is a conjugation of. I can kinda-sorta see it, but the connection isn't very transparent to me. However, I can certainly appeal to the learnèd scholars here! Are there any other surviving words witen bears etymological affinities to?


8 Answers 8


"witness" is one.

As you already mentioned "to wit" is from an old Saxon root. I can see some link with the German "wissen" (also to know), Dutch "weten" and (I'm told) Danish "Vide" .

As in many languages "to see" and "to know" are interrelated concepts. So that "to wit" is not only about knowledge but witnessing.

On the knowledge side, it is also easy to see the link with wise and witty and wittingly.

The "Witan" being the Anglo Saxon assembly of wise men - knowing enough to have their word in the destiny of the community.

"wittingly": knowingly.

Following mplungjan's comment, I read that the common root would be the Sanskrit "veda" (knowledge), which also yielded Latin "videre" (again "see" and "know").
All of these forms (including the Sanskrit) come from the Proto-Indo-European word *weid- (credits to Kosmonaut)

  • @Alain Pannetier Another great answer Alain -- I see you are determined to utterly crush this forum :) And I beg your pardon that it's "easy to see"; I certainly didn't recognize the "wise" connection off the top of my head.
    – Uticensis
    Mar 13, 2011 at 7:06
  • @Alain Pannetier BTW, I hope you don't mind if I ask what you received training in? Your name sounds of French origin -- so how is it that a Frenchman comes to know so much about the English language?
    – Uticensis
    Mar 13, 2011 at 7:08
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    @Billare. I've updated my profile. It is now all too conspicuous that I haven't got any other literary background than that of an elder IT professional and languages hobbyist, redeemed maybe by a pathological and unquenchable curiosity. Mar 13, 2011 at 7:48
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    @mplungjan. Thanks. your comment made me curious, because "Vide" is so close to Latin "videre" (see). So I looked it up and it turns out that the common root would be the sanscrit "veda" (kowledge !!!) so that we have now traced it back to Indo-europeans. I'll update the answer accordingly. Mar 13, 2011 at 7:55
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    @Alain Pannetier: The common root is not the Sanskrit word; as you can see, Indo-Iranian branched in a different direction from Germanic from the very early stages of Indo-European, so it is extremely unlikely for Sanskrit to be the root for Germanic or Italic words. All of these forms (including the Sanskrit) come from the Proto-Indo-European word *weid-.
    – Kosmonaut
    Mar 13, 2011 at 13:12

Witless http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/witless


The word wit is from Old English. According to Etymonline:

"know," O.E. witan "to know," from P.Gmc. *witanan "to have seen," hence "to know" (cf. O.S. witan, O.N. vita, O.Fris. wita, M.Du., Du. weten, O.H.G. wizzan, Ger. wissen, Goth. witan "to know"); see wit (n.). The phrase to wit, almost the only surviving use of the verb, is first recorded 1570s, from earlier that is to wit (mid-14c.), probably a loan-translation of Anglo-Fr. cestasavoir, used to render L. videlicet (see viz.).


In addition to ones already mentioned:

inwit - mind, reason, intellect, understanding
witcraft - logic, reasoning
witful — wise; sensible
witling- a person with little wit
witter - knowing, certain, sure, wis; to make sure, inform, or declare.
witticism - a witty remark
wittol - an acquiescent cuckold.

There are more in Middle English that I don't think are to be found in Modern English.

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    In addition to the above: 'nitwit', 'unwitting', 'unwittingly', and the verb 'outwit'
    – user18792
    Mar 5, 2012 at 17:08

The NOAD reports that witan (another term for witenagemot) derives from the Old English plural of wita (wise man).
In that case, you can say there is another word that is related to the Old English wit.

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    Both those terms (witan and witenagemot) refer to the proto-Parliament that comprised the advisory body to the king in the years before the two conquests of England in the 11th Century (the first one Danish, the second Norman). Witenagemot literally means "Meeting of the Wise Ones".
    – Robusto
    Mar 13, 2011 at 5:35
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    @Robusto Shoulda made that an answer ;)
    – Uticensis
    Mar 13, 2011 at 6:54

Dimwit is a relatively new (1920's) American construction.

1920-25, Americanism; dim + wit


"Wit" in late ME also referred to any of the five senses. Probably related - "to have one's wits about one"

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    This is an interesting observation. Can you point readers to further information about the broad application of wit to the five senses in late Middle English? That sort of amplification and documentation in an answer is much prized at this website. Without it, readers may not know how seriously to take the posted response, which unavoidably suffers from the common Internet disadvantage of coming from a total stranger of unknown expertise.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 8, 2017 at 18:49

It's prevalent in Old Norse and in modern Icelandic similarly to how it is used in modern English (notable difference = [vitki = lighthouse]).

I'd like to throw Wizard in this list. Fits contextually well with old Scandinavian mysticism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitki

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