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  Wit (old English, ‘knowledge’) used to mean quite simply the quality of intelligence or understanding, a meaning which survives in such phrases as ‘He doesn\'t have the wit he was born with’. Its use in this way suggests a kind of intellectual alertness and articulacy, and these qualities led to its secondary meanings in the 18th century, a faculty for relating concepts, for understanding and clearly expressing intellectual ideas, and from the 19th century onwards, a specialized kind of humour.

The last meaning is the only one which still persists today. Writers on comedy and jokes often make a distinction between ‘wit’ and ‘humour’. ‘Humour’, they say, derives from the medieval European idea that all created things were made up of different combinations of the four elements air, earth, fire and water, and that our individual temperament depended on the proportions of each element in our makeup. Humour is thus an innate quality, something we have and are. Wit, by contrast, is an attitude to life: it is extrovert and declarative, a form of show (and often, a mask). It seldom shows gentleness or warmth, as humour does; whether verbal or physical, it tends to play to the gallery, to solicit admiration, and fairness and truthfulness are secondary considerations. Wit often has victims; it deflates and wounds; it is a form of irony, requiring collusion between two people (the witty person and the admirer) against a third person (the butt) or an object or situation. In some societies—ancient Rome and the modern Middle East are notable cases—this hardness in wit has been one of its most prized features, and has made it a main form of discourse. In other societies—the English-speaking peoples are examples—it has been approached more gingerly, so that witty people tend to be regarded as dangerous, to be admired rather than loved (at least in the way that humorous people are loved), and so that self-deprecation (irony against oneself) is the only really favoured form. KMcL



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