Q&A: Wet vs whet

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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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