To have been, or not to have been? As a friend of mine has put it, “What could it was?” We understand that the years add and the years subtract, and when we think of an old, greyed person we may think they are wisened, grown in knowledge and understanding, or we may think they are wizened, withered and shriveled.
Life is a feast. The question is, are you the one feasting – feasting your eyes and mind upon it, being nourished without diminishing it – or are you the one being feasted on – being eaten up and eaten away, or eating yourself from within like a hungry ghost as you crave more and more and eat up more and more and yet have less and less? Do you, when faced with some new view or fact or perspective, approach it with curiosity, hoping to learn, even if it means letting go of some things you thought were sure, or do you reject it as a threat to the world view you have built up, the position you have claimed for yourself, the cage you have so carefully constructed around you? It all comes down to a small shift in perspective – as little as from s to z or from z to s.
Well, historically, it also all comes down to coincidence. To grasp what is, let’s look at what was. And first of all, let’s look at what was was.
The English verb ‘to be’ is suppletive – that means that different conjugations use different unrelated forms. Whereas regular verbs are like I like, we like, she likes, he liked, suppletive verbs are like I am, we are, she is, he was. And that was is related to the German wesen and ultimately to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *h₂wes-, ‘dwell, live, stay’. It came to us by way of Proto-Germanic wesaną.
That was also sounds somewhat like wise. But wise traces ultimately to PIE *weyd-, ‘see’, also source of vision, video, view, and German wissen (‘know’) and English wit. A wise person is one who has seen and has sight (so to speak). And so a wisened person is someone who has seen some stuff – who was and who is and who has waxed in wit.
On the other hand, wizened, from wizen, pronounced with a “short i” (as in “wiz”), the word for someone who has short sight and who was more and is less, comes from PIE *wes-. But there are three kinds of *wes-: one meant ‘clothe’ (are you vested in years or knowledge? no, that is not what it means), one meant ‘sell’ (have you sold out? perhaps, but that is not the source), and one meant ‘eat, consume, graze’. It is that last one that became Proto-Germanic wesaną – but not the one that could was was. It’s another one of the same form, and it meant ‘consume’. And, although it seems unrelated (historically) to wither, it came to be a rough synonym for it. When you are wizened, the years have gnawed on you. Originally (and still, in some contexts) wizen has nothing especially to do with advanced years; things and people can shrivel quickly. But it looks so much like wisen and perhaps like wizard that we can easily be led down another path.
And which, by the way, is a wizard? Although we think of a wizard as like Merlin or Gandalf, an ancient greybeard, there is nothing that says the person must be wizened – only that you expect a kind of wide zen from them, in a way. And, of course, you expect them to be wise, which is where wizard comes from – it could have been spelled wisard. You might say knowledge is knowing that it sounds like [z], while wisdom is knowing that it comes from wise, not from wizen. There is wisdom in knowing the difference between some seemingly identical things.
So to be a wizard, you must be wise – open to seeing – and thus, in any mental or spiritual sense, you must not be wizened, consumed, eaten up, dried out. You may not be green in years, but you must not be a dry stalk that breaks at the first breeze. Your education must be ongoing, even if you wheeze as you walk your ways.