live by one's wits

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live by/on (one's) wits

To survive or make a living through one's intellect and resourcefulness. When I lost everything, I had to live by my wits, and it made me a stronger, more savvy person.
See also: by, live, on, wit
Farlex Dictionary of Idioms. © 2022 Farlex, Inc, all rights reserved.

live by one's wits

Manage by clever expedience rather than hard work or wealth. For example, Alan's never held a steady job but manages to live by his wits. This expression uses wits in the sense of "keen mental faculties." [c. 1600]
See also: by, live, wit
The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. Copyright © 2003, 1997 by The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

have one's wits about one, to

To be wide awake and alert. Wits in the plural has long meant keen mental faculties. Ben Jonson so used it in The Alchemist (1612): “They live by their wits.” About the same time, the expression of having one’s wits about one—in effect, ready to serve one—came into use. It appeared in James Mabbe’s 1622 translation of Guzman de Alfarache (“I had my wits about me”) and has been used ever since. To live by one’s wits, on the other hand, also implies managing by means of clever expediency rather than honest work.
See also: have, to, wit
The Dictionary of Clichés by Christine Ammer Copyright © 2013 by Christine Ammer
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