The Curious Case of “Whet”
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.)