Halloween words, Part 2: witches, literature, more monsters!

witch – This is an ancient word that in Old English was wićće which is the feminine version of wićća, meaning a (male) magician, sorcerer, wizard.  Both names derive from the verb wiććian, “to practice magic”.  Sorcerers were always frightening and suspect, especially after Christianity established itself in an area, but women were singled out for special persecution with accusations of witcherywww.etymonline mentions the Laws of Ælfred from c. 890 specifying witchcraft “as a woman’s craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the W. Saxons”.

weird – Originally this word meant “fate, destiny, lot” and comes from the old Germanic word meaning “to become”.  Old English wyrd, Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt, Old Norse urðr.  (In modern German, the verb “to become” is still clear: “werden”, and Dutch has “worden”, Icelandic “verða”).  As an adjective, “weird” came to mean “controlling the destinies of men”, which would be an odd, mysterious, and possibly frightening ability to have.  A werde sister was the name given to such a prophetess, and three of them show up in Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the Weird Sisters.  It is apparently from Shakespeare’s usage of weird in this popular play that our modern adjective derives.

hex – This comes into English from Pennsylvania German!  That doesn’t happen very often.  The verb is hexe, which comes directly from German hexen, “to hex, to put a spell on”, and is related to hag.

hag – Nobody’s completely sure where this comes from ultimately, but what we do know is that it showed up in the 1200s and it’s a shortening of Old English hægtesse which meant “witch”.  It appears to be related to the word “hedge” because way back then, witches and ghosts were thought to “ride/straddle a hedge”.  A hedge was seen as a boundary between worlds, both earthly, between city and country, as well as between this world and the beyond.  Sounds far-fetched, but Old Norse has túnriða which is literally “hedge-rider” but meant “ghost” or “witch”.

magic – We get this from French, which got it from Latin, which got it from Greek, which got it from an Old Persian word magus meaning “a member of the priestly caste” of whatever religion they were practicing in Persia at the time.  By the way, that magus word is also the source of the word for the biblical Wise Men, the Magi.  If you’re a priest of some sort, you know things that the laity does not, therefore you are “wise” and can supposedly perform supernatural acts, or “magic”.  The English (and Fr. and Lat.) noun derives directly from the Greek adjective form of Gk. mágos (wise man, magician) in the phrase magikế tékhnē, “magic art”.

gothic – This word certainly needs clearing up.  Halloween-wise, “gothic” usually refers to fiction that combines elements of Romanticism with scenes of horror, a genre that is credited to Horace Walpole as having intentionally created in the late 1700s.  In this sense, “gothic” refers to ideas of Medieval Europe, which people have long associated with superstitions, witches, death, decay, and so on.  But “gothic” originally refers to a real Germanic tribe called the Goths.  A branch of them killed off the Roman Empire in the 5th century.  They were an actual group of people with a culture, a political system, kings, and their own language called Gothic.  But over time, the Goths came to be seen as representing smelly, rude, dim-witted barbarians who mindlessly destroyed Rome, and people started calling anything they considered crude and ugly “gothic”.  Medieval art and architecture were first called “gothic” pejoratively by later (Renaissance) artists who preferred more classical styles, although now Gothic cathedrals are considered some of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

devil – A variation of this word shows up in most every local language wherever Christianity was adopted and the Bible translated into the local language.  In Germanic, Old English had dēoful, Old Saxon diubul, Dutch duivel, Old High German tiufal, New High German Teufel, Icelandic djöfull.  Gothic diabaulus (c. 400) is a direct rendering of the Greek source diábolos which showed up in the Septuagint to render the Hebrew name sātān, properly “one who plots against another”, or “accusor, slanderer”.  The Greek name comes from the verb diabállein, “to slander, traduce”.  Latin borrowed the word from Greek and made it diabolus which is the source for the Romance forms, French diable, Spanish diablo, Portuguese diabo, Italian diavolo, Romanian diavol.

zombie – What would Halloween (or the movie industry) be without zombies?  The word most likely comes from African languages, either Kikongo zumbi, meaning a “fetish”, or Kimbundu nzambi, meaning “god”.  Apparently that was specifically the name of a snake-god but later acquired its modern meaning of reanimated corpse.

Frankenstein – This is just the mad scientist’s last name in Mary Shelley’s story, not the name of the monster!  It’s a German place-name that literally means “the Franks’ stone”, the Franks being an ancient Germanic tribe.  (Think of the city Frankfurt—that first part is the same people.)  “Franken-” could also be “Franconia”, the area where the Franks lived.  There really are places in Germany called “Frankenstein” and even a castle or two by that name.

Dracula – This name became popular in English from the novel by Bram Stoker, of course, but there really was a historical Transylvanian tyrant named Vlad Dracula.  Stoker used the name for his villain, who he originally was going to call Count Wampyr.  The real Vlad Dracula truly was horrible, infamous and feared for his penchant of executing enemies by impaling them bodily on sharp posts.  The name “Dracula” is related to the word “dragon”.

About David Rutland

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