Q From Claire in France: I recently wrote to someone that I would whet his appetite with an extract from a report. I double-checked with an English colleague that it should be whet but I find your website only deals with wet your whistle. Now I’m left wondering — have I (and my British colleague) got it wrong in terms of appetite?
A No need to worry: you’re using it correctly.
Native English speakers have been confusing whet and wet in whet one’s appetite and wet one’s whistle for three centuries, ever since standard English lost the difference in sound between w and wh. In some places, including Ireland and parts of the US, speakers maintain the old historical difference in which wh is a breathy sound said as though it’s written hw. Such speakers also distinguish other pairs, including which-witch (hence wine-whine merger for the loss of the distinction).
As I said in my item about wet one’s whistle, its first word has often been spelled as whet, with the earliest known example being from a book of 1674 by Thomas Flatman with the title Belly God. Similarly, whet one’s appetite often turns up with wet instead:
Attention spans are short enough on the internet, at least give us something to wet the appetite.
PC Pro, Dec. 2013.
Could users of the wet form have been thinking of their mouths filling with saliva in happy expectation of a good meal? Or of their appetites being stimulated by an aperitif? The second idea, and the consequent misspelling of whet, seems much the more probable and goes back at least a couple of centuries:
When a Sijarmatian of this description is visited by a stranger, the first thing offered him is a glass of brandy; another dram is taken to wet the appetite immediately before dinner, and after it the dose is repeated to help digestion.
Travels in Poland, Austria, Saxony, Bavaria, and the Tyrol, by Baron d’Uklanski, 1808.
You can see how easily confusion with wet one’s whistle grew up. However, where appetites are concerned it’s definitely whet, from the verb meaning to sharpen. It’s from old English hwettan and turns up also in whetstone, a device for sharpening knives and other edged tools. This, too, has suffered from the same confusion, sometimes being written as wetstone, a change that might have been influenced by the common practice of wetting a whetstone when whetting items.
Quite early on, whet added a figurative sense. A potential enemy was said to be whetting its swords if it was becoming aggressive. People spoke of whetting their teeth, meaning that they were ready or eager for battle; they might even have whetted their tongues, figuratively sharpening them for verbal warfare.
The verb extended its figurative meaning still further from the fifteenth century to suggest exciting, stimulating or sharpening somebody’s interest, curiosity, desire (or appetite). Such usages may still be found: “They have whetted a lust for sensationalism that has turned us into a nation of accident watchers” (A Coward’s Chronicles by Marti Caine, 1990); “Brains are being whetted for the onslaught of work” (Rolling Stone, 2007); “A sheepish fascination seems to have whetted the public’s curiosity” (New York Times, 2007); “The narrow glimpses she managed to catch between buildings whetted her impatience to behold it unobstructed” (The Deception at Lyme, by Carrie Bebris, 2011).
The noun has gone through similar stages but long ago settled on the particular sense of something that stimulates the appetite. This might be a snack but has been much more often an appetiser in the form of a small glass of strong liquor:
Father Michael, a pleasant, fresh-faced, smiling man, perhaps of thirty-five, took me to the pantry, and gave me a glass of liqueur to stay me until dinner. ... The whet administered, I was left alone for a little in the monastery garden.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1879.
This is now rare outside historical contexts (“The gunroom welcomed their guest, pressed him to take a whet” — Clarissa Oakes, by Patrick O’Brian, 1992) and must have added to the confusion between whet and wet.
Whet is uncommon today. In literal contexts it has been replaced almost entirely by sharpen; in figurative ones the phrase whet one’s appetite accounts for almost all its appearances. But it is misspelled so often that it seem likely sometime soon to be replaced by wet, which would be a sad loss.