The word witch derives from the Old English nouns ƿiċċa [ˈwittʃɑ] ('sorcerer, male witch, warlock') and ƿiċċe [ˈwittʃe] ('sorceress, female witch'). The word's further origins in Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European are unclear.
Throughout history there has not been a consistent definition of the term "witch". Johannes Nider and other 15th century writers used the Latin term maleficus to mean witch—a person who performed maleficium, harmful acts of sorcery, against others. The witch hunts of medieval Europe differed from pre-Christian practices in condemning the witch as a moral corruption, rather than focusing on whether the act of sorcery was harmful, expanding the customary understanding of the maleficium concept. The introduction of the idea of demonic forces empowering the acts of maleficium gave the term "witch" new connotations of idolatry and apostasy that were adopted by Malleus maleficarum, but these remained disputed despite papal injunctions to take action against witches.
The Old English verb wiccian has a cognate in Middle Low German wicken (attested from the 13th century, besides wichelen "to bewitch"). The further etymology of this word is problematic. It has no clear cognates in Germanic outside of English and Low German, and there are numerous possibilities for the Indo-European root from which it may have been derived.
- 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 connects the "Ingvaeonic word" *wikkōn with Gothic weihs "sacred" (Proto-Indo European (PIE) *weik- "to separate, to divide", probably via early Germanic practices of cleromancy such as those reported by Tacitus,
- Grimm also considers *weik- "to curve, bend" (which became wicken "hop, dance") and *weg'h- "to move" (in a sense of "to make mysterious gestures").
- 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. Kluge's law) to *wikkōn. The basic form would then be the feminine, wicce < *wikkæ < *wikkōn with palatalization due to the preceding i and the following *æ < *ōn in early Ingvaeonic. The palatal -cc- /t͡ʃ/ in wicca would then be analogous to the feminine.
- An alternative possibility is to derive the palatal /t͡ʃ/ directly from the verb wiccian < *wikkija. Lühr conversely favours derivation of this verb from the noun.
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language connects PIE *weg'- "rouse" (English wake), and offers the Proto-Germanic reconstruction *wikkjaz "one who wakes the dead".
From Old to Modern English
The Middle English word wicche did not differentiate between feminine and masculine, 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.
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 1 Samuel 28:7) as a fanciful term for a medium appears in 19th-century literature.
The meaning "an adherent of Wicca" (male or female) is due to Gerald Gardner's purported "Witch Cult", and now appears as a separate meaning of the word also in mainstream dictionaries. For example, Meriam-Webster currently distinguishes four meanings of the noun witch,
- 1. "a person (especially a woman) who is credited with having usually malignant supernatural powers"
- 2. "a practitioner of witchcraft especially in adherence with a neo-pagan tradition or religion (such as Wicca)"
- 3. "a mean or ugly old woman: hag crone"
- 4. "a charming or alluring girl or woman"
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 also had hægtesse "witch, fury", whence Modern English hag, of uncertain origin, but cognate to German Hexe, from an Old High German haga-zussa, Common Germanic *haga-tusjon- (OED), perhaps from a *tesvian "to mar, damage", meaning "field-damager" (the suggestion of Grimm). The element hag- originally means "fence, wooden enclosure", and hence also "enclosed fields, cultivated land".
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 about 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 augur, 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.
- 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.
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- Bailey, M. D. (2010). Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages. (n.p.): Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde IV, p. 506.
- Grimm's view is repeated by the Online Etymology Dictionary: "possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and Germanic weihan "consecrate," s, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents."
- Harper, Douglas. "witch". Online Etymology Dictionary.
- R. Lühr, Expressivität und Lautgesetz im Germanischen, Heidelberg (1988), p. 354
- OED, s.v. witch
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4th Edition, online (2000): witch and *weg-. Accessed 3 May 2006.
- Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or virtue rewarded (1739–40) has: "Mrs. Jervis, said he, take the little witch from me"
- "Definition of WITCH". www.merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 5 June 2021.
- Principles of English Etymology (2 series, 1887 and 1891)
- whence English weak; Grimm s.v. Weide
- wicker an East Scandinavian loan, entering the English language in the 14th century. The English cognate of the root yields withy, and the "willow" word in all old Germanic languages has the dental (Old Norse víðir). The wicker word is in fact from the *weik- root employed for "hop, dance" etymology considered by Grimm, irrespective of willows. See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. witch n2, witch, wych n3. (Online edition, accessed 5/9/07)
- Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd Edition (1989).
- Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller. (1998) An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth; edited and enlarged by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford: Oxford University Press (reprint of 1898 edition). ISBN 0-19-863101-4
- Chardonnens, László Sándor (2007). Anglo-Saxon Prognostics, 900–1100: Study and Texts. Leiden: Brill. p. 109. ISBN 9789004158290.
In another of the Plantin-Moretus glossaries, 'ariolus' is a secondary gloss to 'augur', which is glossed in Old English by 'wicca'.
- Petterson, David C. Hostile Witnesses: Rescuing the History of Witchcraft from the Writings of Scholars and Churchmen. David C. Petterson.[unreliable source?] Petterson cites Halitgar's Penitential, II.22, as in Die Altenglische Version des Halitgar'schen Bussbuches, ed. Raith, p29; quoted in North, Richard, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1997, p. 276.
- Elsakkers, M.J. (2010). "Article VIII: Anglo-Saxon laws on poisoning: an invitation to further investigation". Reading between the lines: Old Germanic and early Christian views on abortion. University of Amsterdam. Retrieved 31 July 2013. Includes a table of Old English laws on perjury, magic, lybblac, secret murder, prostitution and idol worship listing terms used in each law.