From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"About the middle period of the Renaissance a theoretical analysis of wit was undertaken, and its practical application in good society was regulated more precisely. The theorist was Gioviano Pontano. […] How wit should be used among people of position is taught by Baldassar Castiglione in his ‘Cortigiano.’ Its chief function is naturally to enliven those present by the repetition of comic or graceful stories and sayings; personal jokes, on the contrary, are discouraged on the ground that they wound unhappy people, show too much honour to wrong-doers, and make enemies of the powerful and the spoiled children of fortune. [...] The doctrine of Giovanni della Casa, some twenty years later, in his guide to good manners, is much stricter and more cautious; with a view to the consequences, he wishes to see the desire of triumph banished altogether from jokes and ‘burle.’"--The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) by Jacob Burckhardt
"Many will find this little jeu d'esprit as pleasant reading as anything in Plutarch."--"Beasts Are Rational" by Plutarch
Wit (esprit) was of considerable importance in the French salons.
John Wilkes was famous in the 18th Century for his wit in response to insults. Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx are considered archetypal 19th and 20th century wits — sometimes even having the remarks of others attributed to them. Also of the twentieth century was British prime minister Winston Churchill, with perhaps the most well documented witticisms of his time. Oliver St John Gogarty was a renowned Dublin wit and surgeon, while John Philpot Curran was an Irish lawyer who would disrupt court hearings with his witticisms. Ksawery Tartakower is usually described as chess grandmaster and wit. The late David Lange, the PM of New Zealand in the 80's, immortalized with his nuclear-free legislation, is another well-known historical figure who is remembered for his quick wit.
From Middle English wit, from Old English witt (“understanding, intellect, sense, knowledge, consciousness, conscience”), from Proto-West Germanic *witi, from Proto-Germanic *witją (“knowledge, reason”), from Proto-Indo-European *weyd- (“see, know”).
Forms of wit
A quip is an observation or saying that has some wit but perhaps descends into sarcasm, or otherwise is short of point; a witticism also suggests the diminutive. Repartee is the wit of the quick answer and capping comment: the snappy comeback and neat retort. (Wilde: "I wish I'd said that." Whistler: "You will, Oscar, you will".)
In French one can distinguish between the bon mot, a witty remark actually produced, and the esprit d'escalier, the thing one should have said that comes to mind only on the way down from the apartment.
In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson states that the original meaning of wit is "the powers of the mind; the mental faculties; the intellects"; he also defines wit as "quickness of fancy", among the nine definitions. In Webster's Dictionary, wit is defined as "the association of ideas in a manner natural, but unusual and striking, so as to produce surprise joined with pleasure".
Another possible definition of wit, or humor, loosely attributable to Freud, is "anger, turned sideways".
Wit in poetry
Wit in poetry is characteristic of metaphysical poetry as a style, and was prevalent in the time of English playwright Shakespeare, who admonished pretension with the phrase "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit". It may combine word play with conceptual thinking, as a kind of verbal display requiring attention, without intending to be laugh-aloud funny; in fact wit can be a thin disguise for more poignant feelings that are being versified. English poet John Donne is the representative of this style of poetry.
More generally, one's wits are one's intellectual powers of all types. Native wit — meaning the wits with which one is born — is closely synonymous with common sense. To live by one's wits is to be an opportunist, not always of the scrupulous kind. To have one's wits about one is to be alert and capable of quick reasoning.
Wit can also be an abbreviated form of the word "with", for SMS/Chat conversations.
- D. W. Jefferson, "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit" in Essays in Criticism, 1(1951), 225-48