The term wit has slipped into triviality; it now means smart word play, a quick rejoinder, an ingenious pun or comparison, in brief some verbal act that tells us more about the intellectual agility of the speaker or writer than about the wider world. But it was not always so. Wit in the 16th and 17th Centuries seems to have had the much stronger implication that some degree of epistemic quality was to be expected. Is it quite wrong to think that this has declined because we no longer, as good rationalists did, expect verbal ingenuity to be able on its own to deliver much understanding, however useful it may be in communicating the results of experiment and the collection and analysis of data? To term something witty is currently to imply that however impressive as mental athelticism it is low epistemic value. Such wit is only self-advertisement, or the aggressive degradation of the perceived quality of another.

That shift in meaning is not so much a change in sense as the erosion of one component, the epistemic, leaving behind only structural word play. The reason for this is subtle, but clearly important. We have gradually, and surely correctly, come to mistrust what one might call the geometric potential for patterning in the language. But at one time, almost everyone would have thought that the potentials for these patterns were in fact supernatural or divine clues to epistemic insight, and their realisation therefore successful expressions of deeper meaning. If words rhyme, perhaps they have some supernaturally sanctioned affinity and reveal something about the universe. (Even today, mathematicians often and physicists sometimes show signs of the same superstition.)

But there have always been those who mistrusted ingenious wit, and he devices of the poets have long been mistrusted, some thinking poetry vinum daemonum, as Bacon reported, and in English at least, there were several writers, Campion and Spenser amongst them, who thought that rhyme was a low and untrustworthy form, though they held this view more on the grounds that it was not authorised by the classics than because of any distorting effect that it might have had. Today, the situation is apparently reversed; the elaborate structures of the past, regular rhythms and rhymes are seen by the higher literates as unsuitable, not so much because they are known to be technically restrictive but because those restrictions are irrationally associated with limiting moral regulations and obsolete politics.

In the general culture the archaic, supernaturally loaded sense of wit lives on; popular singers rhyme and pattern with abandon, and are rewarded by their audience with devotion and the reputation of insight, sympathy and even wisdom.