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Words of Winds: The "Carnival of Etymologies"

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Special "Harry Potter" edition! in honor of J.K. Rowling's new book, which my son read last week, and her nose for juicy obscure and historical words. She seems to me the sharpest English popular writer in this way since J.R.R. Tolkien.

Witch is Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use especially "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts."

English used to be a fully inflected language, with genders like German or Latin, and wicce is the feminine form of wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic."

The nouns all come from the verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft," which has relatives in Low German. But the exact origin of it is lost in the murk of history.

The Oxford English Dictionary simply dismisses it as of uncertain origin. Ernest Klein's etymology dictionary suggests a connection with Old English wigle "divination," and wig, wih "idol."

Calvert Watkins, another noted modern etymology writer, suggests the nouns represent a Proto-Germanic *wikkjaz "necromancer," and thinks this may mean literally "one who wakes the dead." He bases this on the notion that the root of the word is Proto-Indo-European *weg- "to be strong, be lively" (the root of wake (v.) and vigil).

The early 20th century English etymologist Ernest Weekly notes a possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and German weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents."

That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of "female magician, sorceress" perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in Anglo-Saxon describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c.890), for instance, witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons:
"Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban."
The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices "incantations," and scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit."

Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, since the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm." Lybbestre was a feminine noun meaning "sorceress," and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron).

In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders Latin augur (c.1100), and wicce stands for "pythoness, divinatricem." One glossary translates Latin necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft.

But the Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." And in a c.1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used as a word for the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben."

If witch once had a narrower meaning, after the Christian conquest it acquired a much broader one. "At this day," Reginald Scot wrote in "The Discoverie of Witchcraft" (1584), "it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch,' or 'she is a wise woman.' "

The witch in witch hazel seems to be a different word, from Old English wican "to bend."


Witch in reference to a man survived in dialect into the 20th century, but the feminine form was so dominant by 1601 that men-witches or he-witch began to be used. Gradually, though wizard emerged as the male equivalent of witch.

Wizard goes back at least to the early 15th century, and its earliest meaning was "philosopher, sage," which is no surprise since the root of it is Middle English wys "wise."

Other languages than English also have seen words for "wise man" become words for "magician" (such as Lithuanian zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," both from zinoti "to know"). The connecting sense in this transition is perhaps "to know the future."

The meaning "one with magical power" did not emerge distinctly in English wizard until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being somewhat blurry in the Middle Ages.


Wand is a word that first appears in English about 1200, and it comes via the Viking invasion, from Old Norse vondr "rod, switch." The root of this is Proto-Germanic *wend- "to turn," which is the root of wind (v.). The notion is of a bending, flexible stick.

The phrase magic wand is attested from c.1400, which shows the etymological sense of "suppleness" already had been lost from the word by then.

But the original notion is preserved in a German cognate, Wand "wall." What's the connection between a wand and a wall? Well, originally the German word meant "wickerwork for making walls," or "wall made of wattle-work," which turns this little word into an insight into prehistoric Germanic domestic architecture.


Magic came into English around Chaucer's time, originally meaning "the art of influencing events and producing marvels." Unlike witch, it's an import, from Old French magique, which in turn is from Latin magice "sorcery, magic."

The Romans got the word from Greek magike (an adjective presumably with tekhne "art"), which is a feminine form from the noun magos "member of the learned and priestly class." This is a word the Greeks picked up from Persia, and it is the same word that has come down, in another form, as Magi.

Old Persian also is an Indo-European language, and the root of Old Persian magush may be Proto-Indo-European *magh- "to be able, to have power," which would connect it with many modern words, including might and machine.

The French import displaced native wiccecræft and also drycræft, from dry "magician," which was related to the Irish root of Druid..

The transferred sense of magic from a supernatural power to "legerdemain, optical illusion, etc." took place around 1811.

But the connection of magi and witch is explicit in the medieval "Three Kings of Cologne" (c.1400):
"Þe paynyms ... cleped þe iij kyngis Magos, þat is to seye wicchis."


The noun spell with the meaning "incantation, set of words with magical powers," is first recorded in the 16th century. Its earlier meaning is reflected by the Old English ancestor of the word, spell, which meant "story, speech."

This comes, of course, from the same root as the verb spell meaning
"name the letters of," which came from Anglo-Saxon spellian, which meant "to tell, speak." The meaning "write or say the letters of a word" began to appear about 1400, from notion of "read letter by letter, read with difficulty."

So a root meaning "say words, speak" forked in English, one branch going down the path of "say magical words" and the other "to name the letters which make up a word."

Many synonyms of the noun spell also mean, basically, "to speak." Old English also had galdor, which meant "spell, enchantment," but also "song," and comes from galan "to sing," the source of the second element in nightingale. German has besprechen "to charm," from sprechen "to speak."

Enchant comes via French enchanter "bewitch, charm," from Latin incantare, which was used of magic spells but literally meant "to sing upon," from in- and cantare "to sing."

Fascinate, though its sense weakened in the 19th century to "delight, attract" originally meant "bewitch, enchant," and was used to describe the actions of witches and serpents, who were said to be able to cast a spell by a look that rendered one unable to move or resist.

It has been traced back to Latin fascinus "spell, witchcraft," which may ultimately come from a Thracian form of Greek phaskein "to say."

A different path from language to magic flows through glamor, which originally meant "magic, enchantment." It's a variation of Scottish gramarye "magic, enchantment, spell," but which is in fact itself a variant of our old friend grammar, which in Scotland also preserved the general medieval sense of "any sort of scholarship," especially occult learning. Glamor was popularized in England and America by the writings of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Its main modern sense of "magical beauty, alluring charm" is first recorded in 1840.

The other verb spell "work in place of (another)," probably has no relation to magic or letters. It came from Old English spelian "to take the place of," which seems to be a relative of spilian "to play," and modern spiel.


The witch's flying broomstick originally was also many other objects (pitchfork, trough, bowl), but the broomstick became the popular image via engravings from a famous Lancashire witch trial of 1612.

Broom, of course, is the common flowering shrub whose twigs were tied together to make a tool for sweeping. The word is recognizable in Old English brom, from Proto-Germanic *bræmaz "thorny bush" (cf. German Brombeere "blackberry"). In English folklore, both the flowers of the broom and sweeping with broom twigs were traditionally considered unlucky in May (Suffolk, Sussex, Wiltshire, etc.).

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Tracked: July 29, 2005 5:37 AM
Excerpt: CARNIVAL OF THE ETYMOLOGIES is now up at Winds of Change.NET!...

4 Comments

Welcome to Winds, Callimachus!

Boccob's light shine within you ;-)

That was fun :) On a side note, i once got in an argument with a born again about the Potter books (which i love). At some point in the conversation, it occurred to me that the discussion was going nowhere because the person i was arguing with believes in witchcraft. It was a very strange feeling, kinda funny kinda creepy. How do you argue logic with someone that believes in witches, and their corrupting power over us via popcorn fiction?

I'm not sure that gealdor practitioners are necessarily female. There is a cognate in the Old Norse for gealdor, galdr which appears in certain sagas that are thought to predate the Saxon invasion of what we now call England. For example, the Saga of Hrolf Kraki is believed by many scholars to be another telling of the story that gave rise to the Beowulf poem.

In the Old Norse, this is not by definition a feminine practice. There are forms for both women and men: galdrakona and galdramaðr. In the sagas, many male heroes are powerful workers of galdr.

By the time of Snorri Sturlason, the legends specified that some taught galdr to some men, but seið only to women, because the practice of it was not compatable with honorable manhood. Why that might be is not recorded, and has been the subject of quite a bit of interesting speculation in the literature.

To our eternal and unimaginable loss, most of the surviving Anglo-Saxon literature was destroyed during the Early Modern period in England. So, it may be that there was a masculine form of this type of magic in Anglo-Saxon England, and we simply don't have a record of the word. It seems likely, given the parallels. It may be that Alfred didn't ban them because, by Alfred's day, they no longer existed due to Christianization; or it may be that people did not think of male workers of gealdor as inappropriate, just as women but not men could practice seið in Old Norse society.

That was very interesting. I actually came upon your site whilst doing a search for the etymology of the word wizard, so this was very helpful. Thank you.

However, what I wanted to comment on was that it's funny that you compared J.K. Rowling to Tolkien as I recently finished the last two Harry Potter books and have since began to re-read and re-watch Lord of the Rings and have noticed HOW MANY things she STOLE from Tolkien.

I can't be the only one who's noticed this (?)

So much for her being so creative and original!

Granted they both base a lot on standard mythology, etc., but that's not the stuff I'm talking about that she copied.

I'm referring to things like inivisibility cloaks, giant monster spiders, etc., etc., etc. I noticed more and more as I read/watched.

IMO that makes her pretty much a plaigiarizer/plaigairist (sp?)

I know I just mutilated the spelling and grammar on that one.

Perhaps this is not the proper forum to discuss this as this is an etymology site, but since you compared her to Tolkien, I just couldn't resist.

P.S. I am not a rabid Tolkien fan or anything either, although I do enjoy his work. Although I am a writer so I can't condone ripping off someone else's work and calling it your own and taking praise for it.

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