Witch (etymology)

The etymology of the word witch traces back to the Old English language with the German and Indo-European languages as possible older sources.

Germanic etymology

The word witch derives from the Old English nouns wicca /ˈwitʧɑ/ (masc.) "sorcerer, wizard" and wicce /ˈwitʧe/ (fem.) "sorceress, witch". The verb wiccian has a cognate in Middle Low German wicken (attested from the 13th century, besides wichelen). Otherwise, no Germanic cognates outside English are attested.

The exact etymology of wicce is problematic.

  • The OED states that the noun is "apparently" deverbal (derived from wiccian), but for the verb merely states that it is "of obscure origin".
  • Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch connect the "Ingvaeonic word" *wikkōn with Gothic weihs "sacred" (PIE *weik- "to separate, to divide", probably via early Germanic practices of cleromancy such as those reported by Tacitus, but also consider *weik- "to curve, bend" (which became wicken "hop, dance") and *weg'h- "to move" (in a sense of "to make mysterious gestures"). Barbara G. Walker gives prominence to this origin, which she believes refers to the witch's ability to bend and shape the threads of reality.
  • The Online Etymology Dictionary states a "possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and Germanic weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents.
  • R. Lühr connects wigol "prophetic, mantic", wīglian "to practice divination" (Middle Low German wichelen "bewitch", wicker "soothsayer") and suggests Proto-Germanic *wigōn, geminated (c.f. Verschärfung) to *wikkōn. The basic form would then be the feminine, wicce < *wikkæ < *wikkōn with palatalization due to the preceding i and the following < *ōn in early Ingvaeonic. The palatal -cc- /ʧ/ in wicca would then be analogous to the feminine.
  • An alternative possibility is to derive the palatal /ʧ/ directly from the verb wiccian < *wikkija. Lühr conversely favours derivation of this verb from the noun.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary connects PIE *weg'- "rouse" (English wake), and offers the Proto-Germanic reconstruction *wikkjaz "one who wakes the dead".

other suggestions for the underlying root are untenable or widely rejected:

  • Grimm reject a connection with *wek- "speak", suggested by P. Lessiak (ZfDA 53, 1912).
  • Walter William Skeat derived the word from PIE *weid-, Old English wita "wise man, wizard" and witan "to know", considering it a corruption of an earlier *witga. No Old English spelling with -t- is known, and this etymology is not accepted today.
  • Robert Graves in his 1948 The White Goddess, in discussing the willow which was sacred to the Greek goddess Hecate, connects the word to a root *wei- which connotes bending or pliance, by saying: "Its connection with witches is so strong in Northern Europe, that the words 'witch' and 'wicked' are derived from the same ancient word for willow, which also yields 'wicker'." This confounds English and Scandinavian evidence, since the weak root in English has no connection with willows, and Old Norse has no word for "witch" cognate to the English.

Old English

Old English also had hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, of uncertain origin, but cognate to German Hexe, possibly from a *haga-tusjon- "fence-wight" or similar. Other Old English synonyms of wicca and wicce include gealdricge, scinlæce, hellrúne.

The Old English plural form for both the masculine and feminine nouns was wiccan (= "witches") and wiccecræft was "witchcraft". The earliest recorded use of the word is in the Laws of Ælfred which date to circa 890:

Tha faemnan, the gewuniath onfon gealdorcraeftigan and scinlaecan and wiccan, ne laet thu tha libban.
Women who are accustomed to receiving enchanters and sorceresses and witches, do not let them live!
In the homilies of the Old English grammarian Ælfric, dating to the late 10th century we find:
Ne sceal se cristena befrinan tha fulan wiccan be his gesundfulnysse.
A Christian should not consult foul witches concerning his prosperity.
In both these examples wiccan is the plural noun, not an adjective. The adjective fulan (foul) can mean "physically unclean" as well as "morally or spiritually unclean" or "wicked".

In Old English glossaries the words wicce and wicca are used to gloss such Latin terms as hariolus, conjector, and pythonyssa, all of which mean 'diviner', 'soothsayer', which suggests a possible role of fortune-teller for the witch in Anglo-Saxon times. The word wicca is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar's Latin Penitential where it is stated that

Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.
The phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an 11th century Old English translator. Anglo-Saxon times.

From Old to Modern English

The Middle English word wicche did not differentiate between masculine and feminine, however the masculine meaning became less common in Standard English, being replaced by words like 'wizard' and 'warlock'. The modern spelling witch with the medial 't' first appears in the 16th century. In current colloquial English "witch" is almost exclusively applied to women, and the OED has "now only dialectal" for the masculine noun, although some Wiccans and other Neopagans apply it equally to men and women.

Figurative use to refer to a bewitching young girl begins in the 18th century, while wiche as a contemptuous term for an old woman is attested since the 15th century. "A witch of Endor" (alluding to ) as a fanciful term for a medium appears in 19th century literature.

Modern "Wicca"

The modern term "Wica" (pronounced /ˈwɪ.kə/ (OED), with spelling later standardised to "Wicca") first appears in the writings of Gerald Gardner. He used the word as a mass noun referring to the adherents of his tradition of witchcraft, rather than the religion itself. The religion he referred to as 'witchcraft', never 'Wicca'.

Gardner himself claimed he learned the term from existing members of the group who initiated him into witchcraft in 1939:

"I realised I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word "Wica" which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed.

The word does not appear in the rituals commonly used nowadays in Gardnerian covens, which were composed by 1959.

Following Gardner a few other early books about Gardner's witchcraft tradition also used the term, with the same spelling and meaning as Gardner. For example, Patricia and Arnold Crother in The Witches Speak (1959):

[T]he Red Queen told Alice that she made words mean what wanted them to mean. She might very well have been talking about witchcraft, for today it is used to describe anything that one wishes to use it for. From the simple meaning "the craft of the Wica," it is used in connection with Black Magic, Satanism, Black Masses...
Also Raymond Buckland in Witchcraft - the Religion (1966):
Today more and more people are turning to the Wica, finding the answer to their religious needs.

The spelling Wicca is now used almost exclusively, Seax-Wica being the only major use of the four-letter spelling. The first appearance of the spelling Wicca is in June John's 1969 book King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders.

The word's first appearance within the title of a book was in Wicca: The Ancient Way published in 1981.

The earliest evidence of the common adjectival form "Wiccan", also used as a noun, dates from the 1970s.


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