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The Oxford Etymologist goes Trick-or-Treating


By Anatoly Liberman

Although we have long since become unisex in everything we do, most witches are still women. It is therefore a great comfort to know that the earliest recorded form of witch is Old Engl. wicca (masculine) “man practicing witchcraft”; it first occurred in the Laws of Alfric (890). The feminine wicce surfaced in the year 1000. This chronology does not mean that witches arose after wizards. Words, especially such words, may exist long before they find their way into a manuscript or onto a printed page, but, as far as Anglo-Saxon England is concerned, men have some precedence when it comes to pursuing magic, at least in terms of their names’ attestation. All of it is interesting and even intriguing, but, like so many other interesting things, quite irrelevant, because in Middle English, endings were leveled and the difference between wicca and wicce disappeared—antiquity or our time, nature always triumphs over nurture and unisex will have its way.

Wicca and wicce are such short and simple words that their etymological obscurity causes surprise. Only one thing is clear: -cc- must have been the product of a merger of two sounds (such is the origin of nearly all long consonants in Old English), while modern (t)ch in witch is as natural as is ch in which and itch. Perhaps it would not be so hard to decompose -cc- in wicca ~ wicce into its initial constituents if we knew what exactly those words meant a thousand and more years ago. The range of powers attributed to witches in various societies goes all the way from divinators, that is, sorceresses and (presumably) wise soothsayers, to charlatans and evil creatures. The wicca and wicce were unwelcome characters in the days of Alfric (a Christian king) and his successors, but their names may have been coined centuries before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and may once have had benevolent connotation, for words change their meaning in every possible way. Thus, silly meant “blessed” in the past, while fond, not too long ago, meant “foolish.” Dozens of old words are translated as “witch” into Modern English, and this practice disguises and distorts the outlook of the people who lived in remote epochs. More to the point, although German Hexe “witch” is a cognate of Engl. hag, this fact tells us nothing about the origin of Hexe, another word of “much discussed” etymology.

The list of words, supposedly providing a clue to the origin of witch, is long: Old Engl. wiglian “take auspices, divine” (but no one succeeded in reconciling c in wicca with g in wiglian); Early Dutch wijchelen “neigh” (because, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, the early speakers of Germanic languages “divined and foretold things to come by whinnying and neighing or their horses”), Engl. wag ~ wiggle and their cognates in German and Dutch (for conjurers reportedly rock, swing, and shake while going about their business), Engl. wake (for witches were credited with raising the dead from their graves), and many others. Among them we find verbs for “falling away” (as though witches were perverts or outcasts) and the adjective meaning “holy, sacred” (those who know German will recognize it in the first element of Weihnachten “Christmas”). Such are the implications of the phrases “of much discussed” etymology.

The etymology I find acceptable connects wicca with the verb wit “know” (as in to wit, the noun wit, witty, unwitting, and witless). Yet this derivation, arguably the best we have, is not flawless either. It presupposes the existence of witga (pronounced witya), the form that later developed into witch. The difficulty is that the combination tg (= ty) yielded (t)ch in extremely few words. However, the verb fetch was probably one of them. Old English had wita “wise man” and witega “wise man, prophet, soothsayer.” Witga, a third member of this family, would have meant approximately the same as witega, but with the accent on occult practices and knowledge of things hidden. If so, the negative meaning of witch developed later, under the influence of Christian teachings. Both wita and witega died out early, whereas witch has continued into the present. This reconstruction of the prehistory of witch has the support of Slavic: the Russian for witch is ved’ma “she who knows” (a similar form exists in several other Slavic languages), with ved– “know” being an easily recognizable cognate of wit.

Now a short postscript on three words that are often mentioned in connection with witch. Wicked: the origin of wicked, an adjective that looks like the past participle of a nonexistent verb and, like wretched, has a full-fledged syllable at the end, is far from clear, but witch and wicked are probably unrelated, for nothing testifies to the evil character of the ancient witch (likewise, there is no connection between witch and wile). Wizard is a late coinage made up of the root of wisdom and a suffix, as in coward and drunkard; it is, therefore, not an original partner of witch. Wiseacre: this word is believed to be an alteration of Middle Dutch wijssegher “soothsayer,” literally “wise sayer”; the ironic connotations that have always been present in wiseacre make the idea of borrowing from Dutch credible.

This brings my story to an end. I hope that with so much newly-acquired wit, all of us are now better prepared for the Halloween than ever before.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. […] On witches. […]

  2. martin

    Don’t forget warlock! There’s a whole column in that wonderful word too.

  3. nicole harris

    what does the word faith mean the history of your word. THat is, where does it come from. What language did it emerge from? how long has it had its current meaning, etc. I am looking for you to give me the etymological history of htis word

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