Q&A: ‘Weary’ vs ‘wary’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the worry of wary and weary is…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the difference between “weary” and “wary”?

A: Well, it’s the–

Q: Do NOT say the letter E!


Q: You WERE going to say it, weren’t you?

A: Not at all. Ahem. The…er… difference is that one makes you tired and the other makes you suspicious.

Q: I’m always getting them confused. It’s so worrisome!

A: And wearisome…

Q: Is there a ‘warisome’?

A: There is not. According to the Oxford Dictionary, it was last seen hanging out in one of George Wither’s poems in the early 1600s. It hasn’t been seen since.

Q: I grow weary of this already. And wary actually. Okay, which is which?

A: Macquarie Dictionary describes “weary” as ‘exhausted physically or mentally by labour, exertion, strain etc.; fatigued; tired’. It’s usually an adjective (e.g. “He was weary after the long walk”) but can also be a verb (“I weary at your constant bickering”).

Q: And “wary”?

A: This one can only ever be an adjective and is defined by being ‘watchful, or on one’s guard, especially habitually; on the alert; cautious; careful’.

Q: So are the two words related in any way?

A: Nope.

Q: Oh, then “weary” at least comes from “wear”?

A: Also no. Merriam Webster Dictionary suggests that while “weary” relates to a “wearing away” of the body (or emotions) due to fatigue, it is not actually related etymologically to “wear”.

Q: Oh, that’s so odd!

A: Yeah, both “weary” and “wear” are super old (pre-13th century), however “weary” seems likely to have come directly from the Old English/Germanic ‘waerig’. Meanwhile, “wear” came from the Old English word ‘werian’ and the ‘wearing out’ vibe didn’t come till much later. For example, noun phrases like “wear and tear” – being degraded by use – didn’t come along till the 1660s.

Q: And “wary” is different again?

A: It certainly is. “Wary” turned up around the late 15th century. And it was from the verb “ware” (Old English ‘waer’) – meaning to be ‘prudent, aware or alert’.

Q: Oh duh, of course, the word “aware” makes sense! But I’m only familiar with the noun “ware”, as in to “sell your wares“.

A: That is the main meaning these days, but the verb “ware” is still around in niche uses such as hunting. It has of course mostly been replaced by “BEware” – which started life in the 1200s as two words ‘be ware’ and people squished it up over time. (“Begone” suffered the same fate.)

Q: Ware, wary, aware, beware. Where will it lead next!

A: Many words actually – all with the same origin of ‘watching out for’. These include: ward, warden, award, guard, regard and even wardrobe! 

Q: Wait, WARDROBE? Is this a Narnia thing?

A: Haha, no. Before it was a wooden thing that transported you to far off lands, it was simply a room (the French called it a ‘garderobe’) with the role of guarding or watching over your garments. In case they ran off or something.

Q: That would be quite the “wardrobe malfunction”!

A: Haha. You do know how THAT term came about, right?

Q: Um… Did the Lion and Witch get locked out or something?

A: No, it was during an, ahem, outfit mishap by Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show. Her co-performer, Justin Timberlake, called the incident a “wardrobe malfunction” to protect her modesty. And the term stuck!

Q: Okay, so we’ve looked at the back stories for “weary” and “wary” – and yeah, they seem to have taken different paths. So is it just because they sound similar that people get confused?

A: That’s one big reason. There is also the one-letter difference and both being adjectives that occupy the same end of the negative-vibe spectrum.

Q: Explain?

A: Consider the phrase “I grow weary of your excuses” – essentially someone being tired of them. It’s the correct usage. But someone could also legitimately be “wary” of someone’s excuses too – hesitant and suspicious of whether they are real. 

Q: Like when it’s an online assignment and you say your dog ate it?

A: Exactly! Both “weary” and “wary” aren’t usually good things to be.

Q: Unless you’re weary of all the fun you’ve been having. And wary of an epic surprise party waiting for you behind your front door!

A: Okay, sure. True.

Q: So what’s to be done with these two? I grow weary of this topic!

A: The “E” is the key. Think of the E in “weary” as “E for EXHAUSTED”. And if you need to confirm the other one, think of the “war” in “beWARe”.

Q: “Be wary of the dog.”

A: That’s it!

Q: Because it ate my computer…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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