|Not a whit. We defy augury.|
In my last post I noticed after posting that I had used 'wit' in place of 'whit' when using the phrase 'not one whit'. I corrected the sentence, but it got me wondering about the word. What is a whit? To matter not one whit is to matter not at all, so we are talking something very small, like a splinter, or the mote in your brother's eye. Right?
I haven't a clue, but the term Whitsunday keeps popping into my mind. I doubt that they're related, but we may as well throw that one into the brew too.
Well, this is the kind of the thing that interests me. A whit is indeed a tiny amount, like a particle, an iota, a jot, any of these things. But in itself it doesn't actually mean a small amount, it just means an amount. There is usually a negative attached to the word somewhere, as in my own example, 'not one whit'. Another example-- 'he doesn't have a whit of sense'. You don't usually hear 'he has a whit of sense'.
Whit is 'the smallest particle', but it comes from the 12th century na whit, which means 'no amount'. The Old English was nan wiht (see how the 'h' gets transposed), in which a wiht is not just an amount, but a human being, a living creature. This relates it to another branch off of the word, wight, which is a person--often an unfortunate one--and sometimes a spirit or a ghost.
You can hear, once you think about it, howwhit might be related to our current word "naught", which again comes from nawhit--"nothing, or no amount". It is related in an opposite kind of way to "aught", which is a contraction of aiwi, ever, and wihti, thing. Together, they mean "anything whatever, or anything at all".
To my shock and horror, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that Shakespeare, Milton and Pope all used 'aught' and 'ought' indiscriminately. Poets. Everything's about the sound.
And what of Whitsunday, you ask? Well, that one deserves a separate post, which, if the world was the ideal place it should be, would be shortly to follow...