wont
n. a habitual way of doing things
adj. accustomed or habituated (usually to something
v. to accustom (tr.); to be accustomed (intr.)

I am wont to using this word a lot, in part because it’s a neat word and in part because it’s so useful: three forms, all the same. The only downfall is that people who don’t know any better tend to think I’m saying “want” (even when you open the throat and do the short ‘o’ like ‘pot’), which is often close enough to get the meaning across, but a far cry from correct.

Wont comes from the Old English wunian—”to dwell, be accustomed”—which itself from the Proto-Germanic *wun- (“to be content, to rejoice”)1; in other words, the rallying call of homebodies and armchair tourists everywhere. You can still see it in the Germanic languages: the Germans have wohnen and the Dutch have wonen. For a while (the late 19th century is the last period from which I can find examples—e.g. Sir Richard Burton), the word was also in American English as “won” and “wone.”

Want, by contrast comes to us from the Nordic vant (“wanting, deficient”) in a fairly straightforward transformation. Interestingly, this word is related to our verb “to wane” via the Old English wanian (“to diminish”) and Middle English wanen. The prefix wan- in Germanic language tends to act as a pejorative. The Dutch waan, for instance, which is similar to the Middle Dutch and Old English wan-, and all of which were ultimately from the Proto-German *wan[o]- and Proto-Indo-European *we-no-, both of which indicating a lacking, absence, or deficit.

These two words, therefore, mean very different (and in some cases opposite) things. The first indicates habit or contentment, and the second indicates a dearth or desire. I suppose one could technically be wont to want—that is, accustomed to being without—but that’s not a phrase I hear very often.

  1. Online Etymology Dictionary[]
§4615 · February 3, 2010 · Tags: , , ·

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