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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Whetting your appetite

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

I recently saw someone online criticizing an editor for not correcting the past tense "whet" to "whetted".

This got me thinking.

Is "whet" in fact a possible past tense for "whet"? Is it perhaps a holdover from former days? "Whet" is clearly an Anglo-Saxon word; that "wh-" is a dead giveaway (it would have been "hw-" in Anglo-Saxon).

Non Anglo-Saxon words ending in -et, like "vet", all have regular conjugations, i.e. vet, vetted, vetted; jet, jetted, jetted. But if you think of single-syllable Anglo-Saxon verbs ending in -et that are very much more common than "whet":
"set", "let",
they are identical in the present and the past tenses: today I set the table, yesterday I set the table.

And thus it was with "whet", the past and past participle of which were "whet" from its origins, and for centuries thereafter. It was only in the Middle English period (after the Norman Conquest) that the regular conjugation "whetted" cropped up, eventually taking over, but not till the 1700s. The same phenomenon happened with "fret".

But although "whetted" is clearly dominant at the moment, the past form "whet" has continued to burble along, not dying out in the 1700s as the OED would have it.

Similarly, "whet"'s homophone "wet" had (and still has) a past and past participle "wet" from earliest times, having acquired the variant "wetted" only since the 1500s. I would say that "wetted" is still a second runner against "wet" as you can see in this chart:


And although it sounds ok (sort of?) to say "he wetted his finger" rather than "he wet his finger", I don't think it sounds at all idiomatic to say "the child wetted the bed".

So, when you combine
  1. the fact that "whet" isn't  a terribly frequent word (occurring between 0.1 and 1.0 times per million words in typical modern English usage. )
  2. with the very strong influence of common analogous words like "set", "let", and especially the homophone "wet",
  3. and the fact that past "whet" is an old form that still survives,
it's not at all surprising that someone might (and some people do, according to corpus evidence) use "whet" rather than "whetted" as a past tense of "whet". It could be argued that it is a minority variant form. Failing to change "whet" to "whetted", as editing "errors" go, is hardly the most egregious mistake.

As I have said before, when you come across a usage different than your own, it's so much more rewarding (though time-consuming) to start with the reaction "I wonder..." than to simply crow "WRONG!!" and march onward, feeling superior.

"Whet" is a word we don't use much in its literal sense of "sharpen" anymore. Exceptions are historical fiction and poetry, though it is rare there too. "I'm going to whet this knife and then slice me some tomatoes for a sandwich" sounds vaguely ridiculous and somehow sinister. (I do however have an object in my kitchen drawer that I still call a "whetstone", along with a different object that I call a "knife sharpener"). We don't react to the clanging bell of a van passing through the neighbourhood by saying, "Oh the knife whetter is here!" 

What we do whet nowadays is someone's appetite or, to a lesser degree, their curiosity.

What we shouldn't whet is our whistle. This is the other "wet". The expression "wet someone's whistle" means to have a drink, the "whistle" in question being the voice.

Would you say "it has whet my appetite" or only "it has whetted my appetite"? Would you have to think about it before you chose a form?

* The force of analogy is also noticeable with the much more recent verb "pet", about the etymology and past tense of which you can read in this post. Since someone asked that question five years ago, I have certainly noticed "pet" being used as a past tense.

2 comments:

  1. I would use "whet" in the past tense as well as present.
    Is 'whet' related to 'whittle'? From my British relatives I have heard whittle used for a knife, and particularly a sharpened one. Since whittling has to be done with a sharp knife, a connection with "whet" seems likely.

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.