Thursday, March 14, 2019

Language of Confusion: Can I Get A Witness? Part I

These days, we really only know wit as a noun—someone has wit, but it’s not something they do. But it did used to be a verb meaning “to know”, too. The noun comes from the Old English witt, where it could mean understanding, sense, or sanity. That comes from the Proto Germanic wit-, from the Proto Indo European root weid-, to see (as in to understand or know, which makes sense for the evolution of the word). The verb has a pretty similar origin, coming from the Old English witan, to know (and it could also mean to have sex with, which I find way too amusing). In Proto Germanic the word is witanan, to have seen, and that comes from weid- as well. Witness happens to be a mix of wit + -ness, which is a word forming element that indicates action or a quality of something. It’s from the Old English witnes, witness. A witness is someone who knows something.

But there’s so much more than that. A lot of words come from weid-, many of them having to do with sight, appropriately enough. Visual showed up in the early fifteenth century from the Late Latin visus, the past participle of the verb videre. Vision is older, having shown up in the fourteenth century via the Anglo French visioun and Old French vision. In classical Latin, the word is visionem, vision, which is also from videre, to see. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that videre is from weid-. No explanation as to why they switched from a W sound to a V sound, though. And fun fact, video is one of the more recent words we’ve come across, having shown up in 1935. It was coined as the equivalent to audio (which itself only showed up in 1934) as people started using audio and visual transmission. It comes from the Latin video, I see, so we were still stealing words from the so-called dead language as recent as a hundred years ago.

Next, view showed up in the early fifteenth century as a formal inspection or survey before meaning seeing something in general. It’s from the Anglo French vewe, view, and Old French veue, light, look, or vision. The verb form, veoir, means to see, and comes from the Latin videre. So this one mostly makes sense. It’s weird how review kind of took over the original meaning of view in English. It actually meant an inspection of military forces when it showed up in the mid fifteenth century. It literally just means re- (again) view. To view again.

And there are so much more. We’ll get to those next week.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. I'd say something about witan and my wife but I think I'll just leave that one be...

  2. We're still witnessing Latin theft.

  3. You wonder what the Romans would think about words from their language still being co-opted today.

  4. The question is what sound did they make when pronouncing that w? Because in certain languages, that w is pronounced like a v. I'm not sure if it's anything other than German.


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