A subscriber queried this odd-looking word, meaning a pretender to wisdom. A friend had suggested to him that the link with a measurement of land was that it alluded to a person having acres of wisdom.
Ho, Ho. Although some experts do profess themselves baffled by the acre part of this word, we know where it comes from — the Middle Dutch wijsseggher, a soothsayer, a wise sayer. The first part is from the same source as our wit. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the original Dutch pronunciation of the word was /ˈwaɪsˌzɛɡər/ (roughly WAIS-zegger).
The word first appeared in English in a scurrilous ballad of 1595 that had the catchy title A Quest of Enquirie, by women to know, Whether the Tripe-Wife were trimmed by Doll. A tripe-wife was a tripe dresser, in this case a well-to-do London widow who sold her wares from a stall; the trimming referred to the cheating of her by one Doll Phillips, who pretended to be a fortune teller who could tell her which of her suitors she was to marry. The story was based on real events, though embroidered. We know that the Dutch pronunciation had already changed, since in the ballad it’s given as wise-aker.
The shift from Dutch to English is a good example of a common form of folk etymology, in which an odd or foreign word is changed until it looks familiar, even if its parts make no real sense.
The word seems never to have been used in English in the literal sense of a wise person that it had in Dutch, perhaps because of the traditional emnity between the two nations that led to a series of disparaging terms such as Dutch courage. It has always meant a person projecting an unjustified appearance of wisdom or specialist knowledge — a wiseacre pontificates on a subject despite being ignorant about it. In the US it can also mean someone regarded with irritation because he’s a know-all or makes sarcastic comments, a smart alec or wise guy.
At one time the home of the Royal Society in London, Gresham College, was called Wiseacres Hall by those sneering at its intellectuality.
Page created 3 May 2008
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