The Curious Case of “Whet”

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Here’s a question from Caro that cites a usage for whet that I’ve never heard:

I have recently seen several people using the word “whet” in place of the word “wet”.  (In one case, I asked a friend if she’d meant to say “wet” but she said it can also be used as a ‘dirtier’ form for “wanton”

I can only wonder what the friend understands by wanton.

Both whet and wet have been in the language since Ango-Saxon times.

whet: OE hwettan “to sharpen” Even back then the word could have the figurative sense of “to encourage.”

wet: OE wæt “moist, liquid,” OE wætan “to be wet.” OE wæter, “water.”

When I taught young girls in England, I often heard one of them say that So-and-So was “wet.” It meant that the unfortunate girl under discussion was “socially ineffectual” or, as they may be saying now, “wimpy.”

I don’t often hear the word wanton in ordinary conversation. It can mean “lascivious” as in “that wanton hussy.” You’re more likely to hear someone refer to “wanton cruelty.” In the latter example the meaning is “merciless, unfeeling, inhuman”: Leaving those dogs tied up in the backyard when they moved was wanton cruelty.

The earliest meaning of wanton was similar to the French expression mal élevé, “badly brought up.” Wanton was a word to use when referring to unruly or unsocialized children as Shakespeare does in Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods.
They kill us for their sport.

Wanton was originally a two-part word: wan-towen. OE wan meant “wanting or lacking.” OE togen was the past participle of teon, “to train, to discipline.” The wanton child was lacking in discipline.

Expressions with “whet” in the sense of “encourage” or “stimulate”
whet one’s appetite: stimulate one’s desire to eat
whet one’s whistle: clear one’s throat by taking a drink
whet one’s anger: increase feelings of anger

Expressions with “wet”
wet one’s whistle: take a drink
wet-nurse (1620): a woman hired to nurse another’s infant
wet dream (1851): nocturnal emission
wet blanket (1879): a person who brings down the spirits of others, (the way a wet blanket may be used to smother a fire).
to be all wet (1923): to be in the wrong
wetback (1924): illegal Mexican immigrant (wet because of wading the Rio Grande).

Bottomline: Using whet as a “dirtier form of wanton” is totally bizarre. (But then, not being au courant with the latest slang, I may be all wet.)

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10 thoughts on “The Curious Case of “Whet””

  1. I suppose someone should mention that wetback is now considered derogatory, and has been for a couple of decades. Before that it was a simple legal distinction. “Wetback”, at one time, might have even been considered respectful of ambition, determination, and maybe even good sense (choosing to leave home for America).

    Today we seldom hear the term; it has come to be identified with racial bigotry rather than immigration status.

  2. I’m sure there is a good story for how the saw-whet owl acquired its name, but I can’t find it. The call of the saw-whet sounds neither like a saw, or like a blade on a whet-stone, but is a series of charming little toots like a toy train’s whistle.

  3. Deborah,
    According to one source I found, the saw-whet owl is so-called because its cry seems to say “saw-whet, saw-whet.”

    The OED mentions a bird called a “whetsaw” whose cry is said to sound like the filing of metal.

    For those who don’t know the cry of the saw-whet owl, the sound can be heard here:

  4. Maeve, this is the recording I listened to 🙂

    But I thought it sounded like a toy horn, or the whistle on a toy train. I’ve heard a screech owl though, and my heart fell out of my chest. What a horrible sound!

  5. I’ve never heard anyone say “whet” as a dirtier form of “wanton.” I also wonder if your friend really understands what wanton means. O_o

    Whet the appetite, yes. That’s a whet boy, no.

  6. Ive often heard people from yorkshire england saying dont talk wet! as in, stop talking nonsense, dont be silly.

  7. @ Chris Bowler, I wonder if that is a reference to one being “all wet” – that is, one of those too foolish or too ignorant to come inside out of the rain.

    Which overlooks those that are required to work, travel, or merely to endure despite the rain.

  8. Additional expression with “wet”: “rode hard and put away wet” from the world of horseback riding — meaning should be evident, but can have sexual connotations; “mad as a wet hen” — again, meaning should be evident.

    I notice you scarcely mentioned whetstones. I’ve used a whetstone to sharpen knives for years, and would suspect that is the most common usage of the verb “whet” today. In fact, just this week I was reading the 1950 short story “A Walk in the Dark” by Arthur C. Clarke and found “And the sides of that rock had been worn away, as if it had been used an enormous whetstone!” “Whetting one’s appetite” seems to be on the way to becoming archaic.

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