Wet vs. whet

Wet is (1) an adjective meaning covered or soaked in liquid, and (2) a verb meaning to make wet. Whet is a verb meaning to sharpen or to stimulate. The latter has origins in Old English, where it related to sharpness and sharpening, but in modern usage it’s confined almost exclusively to the phrase whet [one’s] appetite. Because it’s more or less forgotten outside this phrase, whet is easy to confuse with the far more common wet.



Here are some images of the freshly painted wall to whet your appetite for the 2011 season. [SFist]

The campaign to whet the public’s appetite for the clothes began in September during New York Fashion Week. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Like any good overture, the work served to whet the audience’s palette and raise excitement for what was to come. [Daily Breeze]

Wet your whistle

The reverse error—using whet in place of wet—is rare, but it is surprisingly common in the idiom wet [one’s] whistle, which means to take a drinkWhistle here is a metonym for mouth, so the phrase literally means wet [one’s] mouth, and it’s easy to see how this came to mean what it does.

This sort of error is common:

Whet your whistle with “the finest tea this side of China,” on the east side of the main market hall. [Patch]

This is correct:

Just when you’d thought you’d be able to wet your whistle on Sunday, a Republican caucus killed a measure to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays last week. [Walton Tribune]

6 thoughts on “Wet vs. whet”

  1. Whistle in the sense of this idiom is not a metonym for mouth; it means precisely that–whistle. Therefore, you are doing exactly that by taking a sip of something–you are aiding your ability to whistle, or “sharpening” (and therefore, whetting) your whistle by lubricating your mouth and vocal cords, much in the same way a trumpeter keeps their mouths and throats lubricated when playing. While I use that analogy, however, bear in mind you’re not aiding your ability to blow a whistle (the tin type or otherwise), so you’re neither wetting nor whetting a physical whistle, you’re simply making it easier to whistle loudly and clearly, hence, whet your whistle.


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