The American Heritage Dictionary defines wit as "the ability to perceive and express in ingeniously humorous manner the relationship or similarity between seemingly incongruous or disparate things." A person who is noted for this ability is also known as a wit. These meanings, which gained currency in the age of Dryden and Pope, represent a marked change from the term's earlier definition.

According to authorities on the history of wit, the term

had from earliest time the meaning of 'intellect' or 'mind'; not until the sixteenth century did it take on any slightest tinge of the meaning connected with surprise and amusement which we today normally associate with it. To the Elizabethan, 'wit' still meant primarily 'intellect' or 'mental capacity,' though it also had such meanings, apparently derivative of the central one, as 'understanding,' 'wisdom,' even 'power of imagination' [W. Lee Ustick and Hoyt H. Hudson, "Wit, 'Mixt Wit' and the Bee in Amber" Huntington Library Quarterly 8 (1935)].

These authors argue that Thomas Hobbes played a pivotal role in creating the modern sense of the term when he described

that quick ranging of mind . . . joined with . . . comparing the things that come into the mind, one with another: in which comparison, a man delighteth himself either with finding unexpected similitude of things, otherwise unlike . . . from whence proceed those graceful similes, metaphors, and other tropes, by which both poets and orators have it in their power to make things please or displease . . . or else in discerning sudden dissimilitude in things that otherwise appear the same." [Human Nature, or the Fundamental Elements of Policy, ed. Sir William Molesworth (London, 1840), IV, 55-56].

Which of these two conceptions of wit best fits Pope's couplets in The Rape of the Lock? Which version seems most connected to love of wild imagination and which to a more austere art and mode of thought? Which of Hobbes's two forms of wit relates to political radicals and which to political conservatives?


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Originally created 1987; last modified July 2000