I was looking up something else in my American Heritage Dictionary when my eye fell on this entry:

wight2 (wīt) adj. Archaic Valorous; brave. [Middle English < Old Norse vīgt, neuter of vīgr, able to fight; see weik-3 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

My first thought was “That’s odd, I’ve never heard of such a word.” Immediately following came the thought “Why is such an odd word in the AHD? How did it survive the culling that takes place for every new edition?” I will probably never get an answer to that question (I’m guessing some highly placed editor simply liked the word and couldn’t bear to let it go), but of course I went straight to the OED (entry from 1924), where the earliest citations are from c1275 (▸?a1200) (Laȝamon Brut l. 10658 “Fif and twenti þusend. whitere monnen”) and the latest is from 1858 (W. Morris Def. Guenevere 108 “They ought to sing of him who was as wight As Launcelot or Wade”), by which time I presume it was long out of living use. At any rate, I probably wouldn’t have posted about it if I hadn’t scrolled to the end of the entry and found this:

wight-wapping adj. [wap v.1] moving rapidly, or characterized by such movement.
1830 Scott Ayrshire Trag. i. 1, The weaver shall find room At the wight-wapping loom.

“Wight-wapping”: what a wonderful word! It sounds like something Bugs Bunny Elmer Fudd would say. Bring it back, say I—we’ll get ’em all back!


  1. More like something Elmer Fudd would say.

  2. Perhaps the reason AHD held on to it is that it’s actually still in active dialectal use in North England and Scotland.

  3. More like something Elmer Fudd would say.

    D’oh! Of course.

    Perhaps the reason AHD held on to it is that it’s actually still in active dialectal use in North England and Scotland.

    Perhaps, but 1) it’s an American dictionary, after all (they have UK terms but generally only the more common ones), and 2) they classify it as Archaic, not UK dial.

  4. Hmm. I’ve never encountered the word in its quoted second meaning in the AHD, but its first meaning (“creature, living being”) rang a bell: in Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novel LORD FOUL’s bane we are introduced to a species of dim, subterranean creatures known as… “Cavewights”. Meaning, I now see, “Cave creatures”. Hmm. You learn something new every day.

    Could its use as a noun (in a compound, granted) by a modern American author (Whom John Cowan once mentioned here at the Hattery, I believe) have been the reason why the editorial team at the AHD chose to leave the word in, with all its meanings?

  5. I’m quite familiar with the noun, but it’s an entirely different word, from an entirely different PIE root; if anything, I would think its existence (and familiarity to people who read archaizing writers like Donaldson) would favor the exclusion of the essentially unknown (in the US) homonym for the sake of avoiding confusion.

  6. Tolkien uses it too, in a different compound: barrow-wight.

  7. George R.R. Martin also uses it to refer to the reanimated dead.

  8. “St. Austin and St. Benedight, save this house from wicked wight.”

  9. Again, these are all examples of a different word — a perfectly fine, noble word, but not the adjective in question (meaning ‘brave’).

  10. What about the Isle of Wight? Are these words connected?

  11. There are always good things to be found when you look to the examples of rarer words.

    “Having been found gamboling with a wight- wapping lass in a covered killogie?” “Mother Mary!” exclaimed the Countess wildly, as she rose to her full height, and turned her eyes of fire upon the speaker; “have I fallen so low, that I have become the sport of ruffians such as you? Begone from my bower ere I die! Is this a place, Lord Earl, for thy cut-throats and swashbucklers to bully and swagger in?” Black Ormiston uttered a loud laugh. ” Sweet Madam,”

  12. The “wight-wapping lass in a covered killogie” [young people those days!] is the only citation of wight-wapping that Google brings up apart from its single use by Scott. It’s in the penny dreadful Bothwell, or, The days of Mary Queen of Scots (1870?) by James Grant, who was a distant relative of Scott’s. Could wight-wapping be one of Scott’s invented Scotsisms?

    Grant’s novel is 400 pages of McGonagallesque riches (“Thou growest sarcastic,” said the Earl, as he nodded to her jocosely, adjusted his helmet, and began to whistle, “My Jollie Lemane“), which might support a case that wight-wapping is a pseudo-archaism.

  13. “Could wight-wapping be one of Scott’s invented Scotsisms?”

    Or it could more likely be an uncommon term used where they both grew up. As James Grant was so prolific, he must not have had the time to care if any readers even knew what he was writing about.

    Less editing writing is probably more authentic of the time and place.

  14. Before answering the question of why the AHD bothered to include the adjective wight, I’d like to check to see which edition the word first appeared in—but I can’t do that, since I am in Kurdistan until further notice. However, the citation reading program of the AHD, more often than not, consisted in the editors’ picking up a book from the freebie piles (or rather, the freebie mountain chains) that lined the corridors of Houghton Mifflin and reading a bit on Friday afternoons. So the citation database was rather heavy on Houghton Mifflin books. Perhaps this word wight was lifted from “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” in the Houghton title The Song of Robin Hood. This title must be a steady seller, because discarded marketing copies from new printings were constantly appearing in the freebie piles of the children’s publishing division.

    Culling of main entries did go on at the AHD, of course (I think I remember that ubangi was removed in the 3rd edition), but not as much I expected before I became a harmless drudge. And there were obstructionists like me. How many times did I save a crossword puzzle favorite like ait or eagre (“tidal bore”) from deletion by screaming, “But it’s on the second page of Bleak House! And Tolkien uses it with the spelling eyot!” or “What about the eagre in The Mill on the Floss!”? In fact, I only expended my cred to save such words if their etymologies were interesting and worth saving. (In the case of eagre, if only to show it is not the same as the adjective eager, although there has been a notable new attempt at resolving the phonological difficulties of the derivation from Old English e(a)gor- “flood”, here: The genealogy of eagre ‘tidal surge in the river Trent’.) I think I would have saved wight 2, too… if only for Robin Hood.

    Most of the old editorial files and papers of the AHD, dating back to the 1960s and the 1st edition, were simply tossed into the garbage one day because Houghton Mifflin ran out of office space at the beginning of the financial crisis and the company’s own, slightly earlier, “personal” financial meltdown (corporations are persons, too, aren’t they?). Houghton couldn’t afford to rent more office space, so the place where the legacy files were kept was converted into a meeting area. No arrangement was made with the company archives, because of the general just-in-time, quick-and-dirty mindset that pervades upper corporate management nowadays, and the harried lexicographers themselves were not given time or warning to make such arrangements. So into the dumpster they went. I tried to rescue yellowing bits of 40-year-old mimeographs that looked important, but any notes on wight 2 that might have answered your question were probably lost on that day.

  15. David Marjanović says

    What about the Isle of Wight? Are these words connected?

    Thanks to scientific names of various dinosaurs and crocodiles, I know that the Isle of Wight was Vectis in antiquity.

  16. Trond Engen says

    Vae Vectis, as they say in Southampton.

  17. I’d like to check to see which edition the word first appeared in—but I can’t do that, since I am in Kurdistan until further notice.

    Best excuse ever! Thanks for your informative (and depressing — those files, oy!) comment; all I can tell you is that wight 2 is in the 4th ed as well as the 5th. I carried my battered old 1st ed. (bought in the Occidental College bookstore as soon as it came out) around for many years, but it finally got discarded in one of our moves (most of the pages were no longer attached to the spine, some were crumpled and torn and others were lost…). Needless to say, I agree with you about the desirability of keeping words with interesting etymologies, and I’m glad wight 2 is hanging on; I was just surprised and curious.

  18. Rick at 1:54am: I’d readily accept that both Scott and Grant heard wight-wapping as an authentic, albeit rare, usage if someone could point to an occurrence pre-Scott. But Scott’s historical novels are known for their auld Scots inventions that didn’t exist until he decided they sounded good. And – this is my confirmation bias showing – there’s something rather lucubrated about wight-wapping.

  19. Oh, I’m pretty sure Scott made it up. But what a glorious combination! It’s like Lewis Carroll coming up with “chortle.”

  20. Come on. None of Lewis Carroll’s distant cousins used “chortle” in their books.

    But it does sound familiar in the context of modern scientific writing. If someone you admire invents an acronym or new term (which is all the time), then you use it in your own papers.

  21. “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist”, by N. David Mermin. (Also the author of the single best QM-for-computer-science paper ever written).

  22. La Horde Listener says

    “…and Wighty’s on the moon!” *snicker*

    As for corporate personhood, they ought to try enforcing it. If a corporation is under eighteen years old, wouldn’t it have the status of a human minor? Ha! Curfew, no rights, eat your vegetables, “Time out, Buddy!”,
    in bed by eight o’clock, the limitations are endless.

  23. Indeed. And if it is under eight, you may not (by Jewish law) read Goodnight Moon to it.

  24. Explain, please?

  25. According to a fictional Mishna (Jewish oral law as written down) passage, Good Night Moon may not be read after eight; alternatively, it may not be read after midnight . An equally fictional Gemara (commentary on the Mishna, also written down) passage discussing the first interpretation says that it means that GNM cannot be read to a child after the child is eight. An alternative interpretation recorded in the same Gemara passage is that it means that GNM cannot be read to a child of any age after 8 PM. There is no Gemara for the second Mishna interpretation, presumably because its meaning is obvious.

    This text, in a style parodying an actual Talmud (Mishna + Gemara) passage, appears on this page, beginning with the words “Talmudic Perspectives” and ending just before the words “How the Story Book Devolved”.

    Assuming that the “eight years old” interpretation is correct, and assuming that a corporation is a person (a shaky view under Jewish law), then it follows that you cannot read GNM to a corporation that has existed for more than eight years.

Speak Your Mind