The UVic Writer's Guide


The term wit (originally meaning intelligent) now usually refers to language that is ingeniously amusing through a surprising and imaginative turn of phrase. This meaning derives from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century use of the word to denote literary inventiveness, particularly in figurative language such as the metaphysical conceit.

Writers of that period also distinguished between "false wit" (conceit alone) and "true wit," which aptly expresses truths. According to Alexander Pope,

True Wit is Nature to advantage dressed,

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

("An Essay on Criticism" (1711))

Repartee is a fencing term used to describe witty verbal conflict, in which people strive to outdo each other in wit, or twist an opponent's words to their own ends. (See also humour, comedy, irony, and satire.)

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995