Wont / Want

Pizza is my wont at lunch, won’t not want.

Dear Word Detective:  The words “wont” and “want” seem close in meaning. Seems I have so many questions for you, as I am wont to do, but I want an answer! Sorry didn’t mean to get excited, just wondering if they were the same word at some point and just diverged into different meanings. — Bradford Cornell.

Well, I have good news. My spell-checker (in Open Office) doesn’t try to get me to change “wont” to “won’t,” which I find impressive. Not that I’d necessarily notice if it did. I guess it’s because I use oodles of seriously obsolete words and Old Norse roots in this column, but I’m used to my paragraphs being so festooned with squiggly red underscores that they look like they’ve got a bad case of varicose veins.

So, right, you had a question. And the answer is no. “Wont” and “want” are not now, and never have been, relatives, despite the fact that they differ in only one letter and have a certain amount of overlap in their meanings. After all, if you are “wont” (accustomed) to doing something, chances are that you “want” to do it at least a little, right? Gotcha. Admit it — you were expecting the English language to make sense. Don’t hold your breath, bucko.

The verb “to want” first appeared in the 13th century, probably derived from the Old Norse “vanta,” which meant “to be lacking.” (The Germanic roots of that “vanta” also gave us our modern English “wane” and “vain.”) The original meaning of the English “want” was also  “to be lacking,” a sense we still use when we say that an unsatisfactory explanation, solution to a problem, or other situation is “found wanting” or “proves wanting.” This sense of “want” was, you’ll notice, very close to that of “need.” We also use “to want for” and similar phrases in a negative construction to mean that something is actually abundant (“Mrs. Bumble … did not want for spirit, as her yokefellow could abundantly testify,” Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838).

“Want” broadened its meaning in the 18th century, and most uses of “want” today boil down to “wish for” or “desire,” reflecting a mental or emotional state that is pretty much the opposite of “need” (“If every one of your clients is to force us to keep a clerk, whether we want to or not, you had better leave off business,” Dickens, 1841).

“Wont” is a different kettle of fish entirely. In the sense most often seen, as in “I went for a walk on Sunday, as is my wont,” it’s a noun meaning “habit, custom, routine,” and came from the adjective “wont” (meaning “accustomed”), which in turn came from the Old English verb  “gewunian,” meaning “to stay, to dwell in a place.” Further back, you find roots that mean “to be content, to be happy” and “wont” actually shares roots with both “to win” and “to wish.” Those roots also gave us the verb “to wean,” which originally carried the sense of an infant becoming accustomed to no longer nursing.

Although “wont” today is not considered archaic or obsolete, its use is uncommon, especially in the US, and it’s most likely to be heard used in a jocular or self-deprecating way (“I bought the DVD the day before it went on sale, as is my wont”).

By the way, just for the record, “wont” is completely unrelated to the common “won’t,” which is a contraction of “will not.” The reason “won’t” is not “willn’t” or something similar is purely historical accident. The form in Middle English was “wynnot,” up until the 18th century “wonnot” was common along with several other spellings, and the modern “won’t” didn’t appear until the 1500s. As a matter of fact, “willn’t” did exist, and was used well into the 19th century by some very prominent authors (“That willn’t wash, Miss,” Charlotte Bronte, 1849).

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