Do idioms frighten you out of your wits? Tim Bowen’s razor-sharp article is here to save the day.

The plural noun wits is defined as ‘your ability to think quickly and make sensible decisions’. If you are at your wits end, you are so worried and tired because of your problems that you cannot think of any more ways of solving them, as in ‘Supporters of the badger cull say farmers are already at their wits end as more and more cattle are diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis’.

If you keep your wits about you, you remain alert to any dangers that might befall you, as in ‘Remember to keep your wits about you at all times in a city as dangerous as this one’. If you scare or frighten the wits out of someone or scare or frighten someone out of their wits, you make them extremely frightened, as in ‘We were stuck down in the cellar and then all the lights went out. I was scared out of my wits’.

If you pit your wits against someone, you use all of your intelligence to try to defeat that person, as in ‘Last week’s champion is going to pit her wits against a new challenger in the latest edition of the quiz programme’. A battle of wits is a contest in which a superior strategy and superior mental strength will decide the outcome, as in ‘The race for the title has turned into a battle of wits between two equally determined contestants’.

If you live off or by your wits, you are very poor but you manage to get all the things you need by being very clever, as in ‘A lot of kids are thrown onto the streets where they have to live off their wits’.