Wit, Witty and Foolish Wit: Classified Examples of Wits in English Literature

'Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.'
 Twelfth Night -- William Shakespeare

The old English ‘witan’ and the Old High German ‘wizzan’ which means ‘to know’ is the origin of 'wit'.  The meaning of 'wit' farther evaluated and asserts meaning to ‘quickness of mind’ and then to the power of joining ideas in an unusual and humorous way or a  speech or writing that shows an apt, clever, and often humorous association of words. It is further associated with mental acumen, intelligence, or reasoning power. Thus it is consisting of observations meant to disparage or attack, expressed in clever comparisons or contrasts and making heavy use of word-play. Satire, puns and epigrams are examples of wit.

The 14 th century poet Chaucer’s best quality is his humor, a humor which is hard to phrase, since it runs from the keenest wit to the broadest farce, yet is always kindly and human. In the 16th and 17th century, ‘wit’ came to the use foe ‘ingenuity’ in literary invention, and specially the ability to discover brilliant, surprising and paradoxical figure. In Shakespeare, dramas are abounding in wit and repartee for the delight of the upper classes. John Lyly with his best composes Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit (1578), an alleged novel made up of rambling conversations upon love, education, fashion,–everything that came into the author’s head. It was loaded with conceits, antitheses and decorations.  It was then epithetic to learning thence ‘wit’ was applied to the style of poetry or ‘metaphysical’. To quote you a funny episode, Samuel Butler (1612-1680)‘s Hudibras , a grotesque caricature of Puritanism i.e. the fractured but  inexhaustible wit was so dear to king and courtiers that they carried copies of Hudibras around in their pockets.

In the 18th century, attempts were made to distinguish between false wit and True wit.Cowley’s wit was ‘false’ because he aimed at superficial embezzlement. True ‘Wit’ was regarded as apt phrasing of truth whose permanent validity is proved by their commonplaces. Either True or false, the wits of Queen Anne’s time are presentably a long list: Swift, Addison, Steele, Arbuthnott, Bolingbroke, Berkeley, Butler; Pope, Prior, Gay, Young, Churchill, Gray, Collins, and Akenside.  Pope defined true wit as ‘what often was though but never so well expressed.” He farther says, “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” Addison said that in ‘true wit’ there is the association of ideas, in ‘fallse wit’ meanly of words. In fact, Pope and Addison made wit and good sense the fashionable temper for writing.
In fashionable romantic period Hazlitt and Lamb applied their analogous conception of wit as a lower quality than humour. In the Jane Austen novels, we find sparkling with wit or running over with good humor. Again in modern period George Bernard Shaw along with Oscar Wilde are bold in exquisite wit and artifice with which they were constructed. To Reach them one would have to go back to the dramatists of the Restoration.


Sitter, John.  Argumenst of Augustan Wit. 
Spacks, Patricia Meyer.  An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope.  
Abrams, M. H. ed.  Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 1.  
Lewis, C. S.  Studies in Words
Pope, Alexander.  Essay on Criticism