Monday 28 March 2011

Wistful and Wist

I was feeling pleasantly wistful this morning when I was startled by the realisation that I had no idea what wist was, or why I was so full of it.

The answer appears to be that nobody else is sure either. It's one of those words where dictionaries seem to cough, shuffle their feet and try to change the subject. It certainly didn't always mean melancholy and yearning. Once upon a time it meant with rapt attention, but as people only really attend to the things for which they yearn, the meaning shifted and drifted to its sorrowful modern form.

The OED tries to take it all back to whistly, which meant silently once. This means that there may just perhaps maybe a connection to the card game. Originally, there was a game of whisk, but whisk became whist for no reason that anybody can really work out. It may have been that it was a game where you were meant to keep quiet about the cards you had, and play whistly.

We need a word like wistful, there's a very particular human emotion and it doesn't really matter whether we know what wist is, we're all brimming with it now and then.

And here is some unrelated wisteria.


  1. Funny, I always thought "wistful" was cognate to German "wissen" or Middle English "wis". The attention/thinking relationship always made more sense to me than something like whist.

  2. On similar lines to the above, the anglo-saxon word 'wist' can mean nourishment, food, meal or feast. I could understand how, in lean times, a person might yearn for 'wist'.

    Or similarly, the A-S word '-wit[an]': to know, be conscious of, understand, perceive or ascertain, could be linked to the modern meaning (tenuously).

  3. I'm sure I've come across "Whist!" or "Wist!" as an exclamation meaning "Hush!" or "Pay attention!" In Shakespeare?

  4. I like that it's linked to silence... It seems more mood capturing to me.

  5. Sean Skipton - my mum (who's a scot) tells me to hold my whisht if she wants me to shut up talking (often). It sounds like: 'hod yer whisht'. Maybe you heard a scotsman or woman exclaim it or perhaps during an episode of Dr Finley!