Bent Etymologies: Two Kinds of Witches
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Posted: February 11th. 2007
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It’s linguistic time again!
“.. Wicce comes from the Germanic root wic meaning “to turn or bend.” Obviously it would be very easy for this meaning to extend to “control or change” in general, and thus on to magical control. Soon wicce would mean “someone with the power to control things, ” or, in our terms, “a talented one.” -- Isaac Bonewits, Real Magic (1972; page 124)
In this passage, Isaac Bonewits makes a very understandable error about the history of the word, “witch”—and it got adopted into several major books on Witchcraft. Margot Adler, in Drawing Down the Moon, accepts Bonewits’ theory that wicce derives from wic or weik, meaning “to bend” or “turn, ” and that a witch is “a woman (or a man) skilled in the craft of shaping, bending, and chang¬ing reality” (11).
Starhawk, in The Spiral Dance, says that Witches “were those who could shape the unseen to their will” (29); that “A Witch is a ‘shaper, ’ a creator who bends the un¬seen into form” (32 and 215).
So often, in fact, has this incorrect etymology been repeated that it has almost become “common knowledge.” More recently, however, Pagans -- including Bonewits himself -- have come to question it. In the 1989 edition of Real Magic, he tells us that “witch” comes from “The Indo-European root weik, some of the meanings of which involve (a) magic and sorcery in general and (b) bending, twisting, and turning. Which of these meanings is the true origin of wicce (a) remains to be settled” (104).
In this article, I demonstrate that the matter is settled based on studies of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Calvert Watkins, The Ori¬gins of English Words: A Discoursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Joseph Twaddell Shipley, and other sources (listed at the end).
These all reveal unequivocally that “witch, ” in the sense of “magic-worker, ” is not derived from any root having to do with “bending.” There is, however, a far more obscure kind of “witch” -- spelled identically -- in Modern English, which is derived from a word meaning “to bend, ” and this is the source of the confusion.
However, before I proceed to the main analysis, one other author is important to mention, as his theory will be relevant: Robert Graves.
In The White Goddess, Graves writes that the willow, or osier, was a tree “much worshipped by witches” in ancient times, and that “Its connexion 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’” (173).
Apparently Janet and Stewart Farrar give some credence to this theory, for they quote it in a footnote (A Witch’s Bible I: 22). But what was the ancient word for “willow” to which Graves refers? He does not say, nor does he cite a source for this informa¬tion. As it turns out, this passage is one of many in which Graves proves himself, as Bonewits calls him, “a sloppy scholar” (qtd. in Adler 59).
“Wicked” and “wicker” do have a common root, but “witch” as in “magic-worker” does not share the same root and none of these words derives from a word for willow.
The true linguistic story begins with Indo-European, the name given to a great-great-grandmother tongue, which became one of the most extensive language-families in the world. The descen¬dents of Indo-European include Latin and its descendent Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.); Greek; the Slavic languages; the Celtic languages (Welsh, Irish, Manx, etc.); the Indic, including Sanskrit and its descendents (notice, for instance, how the name of the Hindu fire god Agni is related to the Latin word for “fire, ” ignis, from which we get “ignition”); and Germanic languages such as Old English, or Anglo-Saxon.
The Old English words wicca and wicce come from the Indo-European root weik2—one of several very similar Indo-European roots which are differentiated with superscripts. According to Watkins, this root appears “in words connected with magic and religious notions (in Germanic and Latin) ” (75).
Shipley, using a different classification system, names this root ueik III, and explains that it means “divination” (430). According to J. R. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, the masculine wicca (the c pronounced with the hard, guttural k-sound) means “wizard, magician, soothsayer, astrologer, ” and wicce (pronounced with the palatal c, or tch-sound) is its feminine counterpart.
Thus, the word “witch” is connected, from its very beginning, with magic, religion, and divination, not with bending.
In retrospect, this is only natural because the connection between “witchcraft” and “bending” is just a little too remote for comfort. There are, after all, many metaphors by which one could describe the practice of magic.
Some people might construe witchcraft as an act of “commanding the unseen forces by one’s will, ” a conception that would make a witch a “commander, ” not a “bender.” And, while one can conceptualize witchcraft as an act of “bending, ” it is not an idea that readily comes to mind.
In other words, it appears that the supposition that there is a linguistic connection between “witchcraft” and “bending” led to the metaphorical comparison between them, rather than the metaphorical comparison leading to the linguistic connection.
But how did so many Pagan authors get the impression that “witch” is derived from a word meaning, “to bend”? (As a matter of fact, both Margot Adler [n11] and Erica Jong  mention weik2 as a pos¬sible ancestor of “witch.” It’s unfortunate that they do not follow up more closely on this lead, for it is the correct one.)
And how did Robert Graves get the idea that witch, wicked, and wicker are all derived from a word for “willow”? The answer is that weik2 got confused with a similar Indo-European root, namely weik4.
Weik4 -- which Shipley designates as uei, to which several final consonants including a k are frequently added (426) -- is the root having to do with “bending.” It is the ancestor of the Old English wice, pronounced “witch-eh.” This word refers to the tree known as a “wych-elm, ” and also appears in the name of the “witch hazel”: plants that were named, not for their magical properties as one might think, but for their pliant branches (Shipley 427; Watkins 75).
Some other words that we get from this root are “wickerwork, ” “week, ” meaning a bending-around of time, “weak, ” meaning “pliant” or “yielding, ” and “wicked, ” which according to Shipley originally meant “yielding to the Tempter” (427).
The surprising discovery, therefore, is that there is not one but two words in Modern English spelled w-i-t-c-h, and they have separate entries in the OED. One is the familiar term meaning “magic-worker.” The other is “applied generally or vaguely to various trees having pliant branches.” That is, a “witch” is a “bendable tree.”
So, if the willow were ever called a “witch, ” it would explain how Robert Graves got his peculiar notion that witchcraft is derived from a word for “willow.” The descent of the two words is diagrammed as follows:
Indo-European weik2, “magic” or “divination”
Old English wicca and wicce
Modern English witch meaning “magic worker”
Indo-European weik4, “bending”
Old English wice
Modern English witch or wych meaning “bendable tree”
In Old English, the words wice and wicce, with their single and double c’s, would have been pronounced a little differently: like the difference between “ready” and “red D” (Mitchell and Robinson 15). However, over time this difference disappeared, and the “witch” in “witch hazel” became indistinguishable from the “witch” in “witchcraft.”
Thus today these words are homonyms: they are pronounced the same way and usually spelled the same way—although one has an alternative spelling, wych—but have completely different meanings and completely different roots.
In fact, as time went by, and people forgot the original meaning of “witch hazel” and “wych elm, ” they apparently began to assume that these trees acquired their name because of their magical uses. Scott Cunningham, in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, says that “Witch hazel has long been used to fashion divining rods, hence the common name” (224). Witch hazel may have been used for making divining rods, but that is not how it got its name.
To some extent, it may have even happened that certain divinatory powers were attributed to the witch hazel and wych elm because of their name, rather than the other way around. In other words, it may be fair to say that the name “witch hazel” constitutes an unintentional pun, in that it eventually came to embody both kinds of “witch.”
Finally, since the modern religion of Witchcraft has come to be called Wicca, and its practitioners Wiccans, we should be aware that the “n” in “Wiccan” is a modern interlingual borrowing: it is a Latin suffix denoting membership or belonging, as in words like “European” and “American.” (The word wiccan, “witches, ” does appear in Old English, but there the “n” is a plural suffix: the one that still appears in a few modern plurals like “oxen.”)
If this interlingua borrowing makes “Wiccan” seem awkward or artificial, let us recognize that it is no more awkward or artificial than a word like “beautiful, ” which combines the French beauté (which in turn derives from Latin) with the Anglo-Saxon suffix -ful. Modern English is full of such combinations.
So, I hope I have shed some light on a curious, knotty little quirk in the English language, and dispelled an all-too-understandable misconception about the origins of the word “witch”—or rather, the two words “witch.” (I daresay I just punned on dis-spelled—and maybe some day someone will try to argue a linguistic connection between witchcraft and orthography, since both can be called “spelling.” But that is another story.)
Of course, we Witches can still think of ourselves as “benders” and “shapers” as well as “magicians” or “diviners.”
Only let us not bend the language out of shape.
[The above is a revised version of an article that first appeared in the Ostara 1998 issue of Tapestry, the newsletter of TAWN, the Tucson Area Wiccan-Pagan Network]
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. New York: Penguin, 1979, 1986.
Bonewits, Phillip Emmons Isaac. Real Magic. New York: Berkley Medallion, 1972.
— Real Magic. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1989
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encycopedia of Magical Herbs. St Paul: Llewellyn, 1985.
Farrar, Janet and Stewart. A Witches’ Bible Compleat. New York: Magickal Childe, 1984.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Hall, J. R. Clark. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1960.
Jong, Erica. Witches. New York: Signet, 1981.
Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Shipley, Joseph Twaddell. The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1984.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco: Harper, 1999.
Watkins, Calvert, ed.. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
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