Wit: Derived from the Old English witan, meaning “to know,” a term whose meaning has changed several times over the centuries. In the late Middle Ages, wit referred to intellect and intelligence as opposed to knowledge. During the Renaissance, it came to signify wisdom. In the seventeenth century, when it began to suggest creativity or fancy, particularly ingenious twists and turns, the term was frequently associated with the metaphysical poets. In the eighteenth century, during the Neoclassical Period, wit came to be associated with judgment, reason, and the ability to articulate commonly held truths in an original and persuasive manner. In an essay in The Spectator (1711), English neoclassicist Joseph Addison distinguished between true and false wit according to its focus; true wit, he claimed, revealed similarities between apparently unlike ideas, whereas false wit associated unlike words through ornamental devices such as puns.

Today, wit is most commonly thought of as clever expression, often characterized by a mocking or paradoxical quality, that evokes laughter through apt phrasing (as in epigrams). Even now, however, wit retains the medieval sense of intelligence, insofar as it is viewed as an intellectual form of humor.

EXAMPLES: Writers often cited for their wit include Aphra Behn, John Donne, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, and David Sedaris. Witty remarks on marriage include Nancy, Lady Astor’s, statement in a 1951 speech, “I married beneath me — all women do,” and French novelist Colette’s (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) remark in Mes apprentissages (My Apprenticeships) (1936), “Among all the forms of absurd courage, the courage of girls is outstanding. Otherwise there would be fewer marriages.” Examples of works rife with wit include Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) and Rob Reiner’s movie The Princess Bride (1987).