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To wit

Q From Kirstin Cruikshank: Have you any idea where to wit came from?

A To wit is now just a fixed expression. It’s a shortened form of that is to wit meaning “that is to know; that is to say; namely”, from the English verb wit “to know”. This was a strong verb with past tense wot, as in “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”. In Old English it was spelt witan, and even further back it was linked with a Germanic verb meaning “to see”. In the first of these senses, it’s closely connected with the modern German verb wissen; in the second it’s the origin of our witness. It developed further to refer to a person’s understanding or judgement or mind (hence “keep your wits about you”).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 16 Jan. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 16 January 1999.