Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's a whit?

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...


  1. There's an interesting Iain Banks novel called Whit, Or Isis Among The Unsaved.

    Its not, however, the best introduction to his oeuvre. That would be The Wasp Factory.

    1. Aye yer right..the wasp factory is a great primer

  2. I'd read it just to see what the Whit was about. Although I'm always thinking I'll read Iain/Ian Banks and never actually managing it.

    Hope the popping in over here means the editing is going apace.

  3. Seana

    The editing/writing isnt going as well as I'd hoped but nothing ever really goes as well as I'd hoped so thats not that alarming really.

    If I was going to rec a few Iain Bankses to get going with I'd suggest: The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Espedair Street. I know scifi aint your thing but I like his scifi novels better than his non scifi. He writes those as Iain M Banks and my favourite of those are probably Consider Phlebas, Excession and Feersum Enjinn.

  4. "Not going as well as I'd hoped" is the right place to start with editing, I think, so that's all right. I happen to know that the basic material you're starting with is sound, so I'm not worried.

    I actually do like good sci-fi when I get around to it, in fact, I happen to be rewatching WALL-E as I write, but I don't get around to it as much as I'd like.

  5. Great stuff....i know in scotland the term 'nowt' is used which is the vernacular of naught, meaning as you point out 'no amount'....
    on the other hand it is believed that whitsunday is a contraction of white sunday...some long laborious christian thing...but that my friend is another story..
    good post!

  6. Dan, one thing I'd be interested in pursuing is when accuracy in spelling became so important. It obviously didn't bother several of the great poets of the English language much.