In its original usage the word wight described a living human being. More recently, the word has been used within the fantasy genre of literature to describe undead or wraith-like creatures: corpses with a part of their decayed soul still in residence, often draining life from their victims. The earliest example of this usage in English is in William Morris's translation of the Grettis Saga, where draug is translated as "barrow wight". Notable later examples include the undead Barrow-wights from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and the level-draining wights of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game.
The English word is cognate with other Germanic words such as Dutch wicht, German Wicht, Old Norse vættr, Norwegian vette, Swedish vätte, Danish vætte. Modern High German Wicht means 'small person, dwarf,' and also 'unpleasant person,' while in Low German the word means 'girl.' The Wicht, Wichtel or Wichtelchen of Germanic folklore is most commonly translated into English as an imp, a small, shy character who often does helpful domestic chores when nobody is looking (as in the Tale of the Cobbler's Shoes). These terms are not related to the English word witch. In Scandinavian folklore, too, wights are elusive creatures not unlike elves, capable of mischief as well as of help. In German and Dutch language the word Bösewicht or Booswicht points out an evildoer, "Bösewichte haben keine Lieder" means they (do not make merry) are unpleasant folk.
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, wights are a category of undead creatures, usually humans or animals who have been killed and turned by the Others (aka the White Walkers) or by other wights. They have pallid skin, black hands, and fierce ice-blue eyes, and are described as being virtually impervious to all forms of attack, even forcibly amputated limbs are described as animated. Their only known weakness is fire; unlike the White Walkers themselves who are vulnerable to obsidian and Valyrian steel.
Examples of the word used in classic English literature and poetry
- Geoffrey Chaucer (1368-1372), The Reeve's Tale, line 4236, The Riverside Chaucer (3rd edition):
- "For [Aleyn] had swonken al the longe nyght, And seyde, 'Fare weel, Malyne, sweete wight!'"
- Geoffrey Chaucer (1368–1372), The Monk's Tale, line 380:
- "She kept her maidenhood from every wight
- To no man deigned she for to be bond."
- Geoffrey Chaucer (1368–1372), Prologue of The Knight, line 72-73:
- "Ne neuere yet no vileynye he sayde
- In al his lyf vnto no manere wight.
- He was a verray parfit gentil knyght."
- Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1379-1380), The House of Fame, line 1830-1831:
- "We ben shrewes, every wight,
- And han delyt in wikkednes."
- Edmund Spenser (1590–1596), The Faerie Queene, I.i.6.8-9:
- "That every wight to shrowd it did constrain,
- And this fair couple eke to shroud themselues were fain."
- William Shakespeare (c. 1602), The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I, Sc. III:
- "O base Hungarian wight! wilt thou the spigot wield?
- John Milton (1626), On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough, verse vi:
- "Oh say me true if thou wert mortal wight..."
- Church of Scotland (1650), Scots Metrical Psalter, Psalm 18 verse xxvi:
- "froward thou kythst unto the froward wight..."
- Washington Irving (1820), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow:
- "In this by-place of nature there abode, in a remote period of American history, that is to say, some thirty years since, a worthy wight of the name of Ichabod Crane, who sojourned, or, as he expressed it, "tarried," in Sleepy Hollow, for the purpose of instructing the children of the vicinity."
- George Gordon, Lord Byron (1812-1816), Childe Harolds' Pilgrimage Canto 1, verse :
- Ah, me! in sooth he was a shamles wight ..." .
- Edwin Greenslade Murphy (1926), "Wot Won the Larst?", in Dryblower’s Verses:
- From weedy little wights whose cigarettes
- Recall a badly-disinfected drain
- Boris Sagal (1971), The Omega Man:
- The 'nocturnals' of Sagal's 1971 motion picture The Omega Man could be considered a filmic example of the wight.
- TSR (1974), Dungeons & Dragons "white box" set:
- George R. R. Martin (1996), A Song of Ice and Fire series, Book I A Game of Thrones:
- "When he opened his mouth to scream, the wight jammed its black corpse fingers into Jon's mouth."
- George R. R. Martin (2005), A Song of Ice and Fire series, Book IV A Feast for Crows:
- "Who has been beyond the wall of death to see? Only the wights, and we know what they are like. We know."
- Ransom Riggs (2011), Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children:
- "I can imagine a wight faking it."
- Merriam-Webster, 1974.
- T. F. HOAD. "wight". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. Retrieved May 19, 2010 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O27-wight.html
- Wight, in the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1974 edition.
- Gygax, Gary, and Dave Arneson. Dungeons & Dragons (3-Volume Set) (TSR, 1974)