Apparently today is National Thesaurus Day. You’d think they could have come up with a better name for it. According to NationalDayCalendar.com, NTD is celebrated every year on 18th January. Really? Since when? By who? And how? Is there a Synonym Society somewhere who spend the day running around shouting euphemisms at one another? My God, I bet there is!
In fact, I think I’ve just defined Parliament.
Unlike most of these spurious national days, however, NTD does have some valid foundation. 18th January marks the birthday, in 1779, of Peter Roget, the London-born physician and word lover, who compiled the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, better known as Roget’s Thesaurus, and thus became the darling of poets and lyricists for generations to come.
Roget would have been proud of me this week. To my surprise, I found myself using the expression ‘to wit’. I can’t remember the exact context – I think I must have been tweeting Danny Baker about the offside law in football or something.
It took me by surprise because it’s an expression I hadn’t used since 1879 and, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how to spell it. Should it be ‘to wit’, as in ‘brevity is the soul of…’, or ‘to whit’, as in ‘I couldn’t give a…’? I knew it wasn’t ‘tu-wit’ as in ‘tu-woo’.
Turns out it’s the former.
My next concern was that I wasn’t entirely sure I was using it correctly. When you’re tweeting a renowned wit like Danny Baker, you want to feel confident in your choice of words, even though he’s unlikely to read it. To wit is one those expressions you throw out there confidently and then worry that you’ve misjudged it and it’s going to catch the wind and fly off in the wrong direction and break a window or knock a copper’s hat off.
The word wit was used in Old English to mean mental capacity, knowledge, understanding, sense, as in ‘having your wits about you’. It wasn’t about clever humour in those days – that meaning evolved in the 1500s, just in time for William Shakespeare to make a speciality of it. The verb to wit, therefore, meant to know or to note, observe, learn. Hence it came to be used before a fact or set of facts that qualifies a statement, which is how we use it today.
For example, ‘There are several reasons for scrapping the offside law: to wit, it rules out too many well worked goals every week at every level of the game, it absolves hapless defending, it causes confusion, disgruntlement, arguments, fights, GBH and, in some cases, murder.’
I think this might have been the point I was making to Danny Baker. I could have played safe and used the synonym ‘namely’, but then I wasn’t actually naming anything or anyone, added to which, namely always strikes me as an odd word. ‘How are you, Brian?’ ‘I’m feeling a bit namely.’ That thesaurus thing is good but only up to a point. There are subtle discrepancies between all these synonyms and they can make the difference between success and failure when it comes to launching a campaign to change the laws of football.
I was vindicated in my choice of ‘to wit’ because, next thing I know, Danny’s tweeting about the offside law being “purely a television construct”. I’m not really sure what that means, to be honest, but I took it as tacit support.