Q&A: Wet vs whet

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 we aim to whet your appetite…

Q: Hey AWC, what’s the difference between “wet” and “whet”

A: The H.

Q: Oh hardy ha ha. Care to elaborate?

A: Well “wet” is usually an adjective to describe something saturated with water or liquid. Sometimes it’s a verb, as in “to wet the baby’s head”.

Q: I have always thought it very cruel that new fathers pour alcohol over their baby’s head.

A: No, that’s not what – oh, never mind.

Q: So here’s the thing. If some food is mouthwatering, surely it should “wet” my appetite – you know, because of the water in the mouth. Right?

A: Cute theory, but nope. It’s “whet” your appetite.

Q: What even IS “whet”? Is it a gluten-free form of wheat?

A: No. It’s a pretty old word – has been around since the 1400s. And it essentially comes from a combination of Old English “hwettan” and German “wetzen” – meaning sharp. From this you get a whetstone – used to sharpen blades.

Q: This seems further away from an appetite than “wet” does!

A: Good point. The verb “whet” has two key meanings. The first is all about sharpening, for example “he whet the knife before cutting the meat”.

Q: So the knife wasn’t wet?

A: No, just “whet”.

Q: I ask because they do make wet saws for cutting tiles.

A: That’s true, but this isn’t related to that. The second meaning of “whet” is to excite or stimulate – you could say it’s sharpening the senses. The most common example, used in 99% of examples, is to “whet your appetite”, but you can also “whet your curiosity” or “whet your interest”.

Q: And all this without getting wet?

A: That’s correct.

Q: Sounds like “whet” is similar to “pique” in some ways.

A: That’s true, and we’ve chatted about that before here.

Q: So you’d whet the knife to cut the meat and doing so would whet your appetite, yeah?

A: Yes.

Q: And you’d whet your whistle with a tasty beverage too, right?

A: Wrong.

Q: Oh dear.

A: The phrase is actually to “wet your whistle” – related to drinking something, rather than stimulating or exciting it. Many get this wrong because perhaps the two “wh” words seem like a nice fit.

Q: A bit like how people say “sneak peak” when it should be “sneak peek”? Actually, that was in the “pique” chat too.

A: It was, and you’re right, it’s exactly like that. Our brains often search for a pattern.

Q: Oh, like the Germans did in both World Wars?

A: What? Oh, no, they were searching for Patton.

Q: Ah, right, okay.

A: For the record, the phrase “wet your whistle” was first recorded way back in 1386, while “whet your appetite” is a lot more recent – appearing from the 1600s, but not in proper use until the 19th century.

Q: Okay, I’m blowing the whistle on this lesson. I’m suddenly very hungry…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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