October 7, 2013

Case File #013.10.07: WITCH

In the era of Old English, wicca was the word for a male magician or sorcerer, and wicce was its feminine counterpart. Although both were derivatives of the Old English verb wiccian, which meant “to practice divination and magic,” they generally suggested something much more nefarious than mere fortune-telling or spell-casting and were often used to label men and women who were suspected of having dealings with the devil or of cavorting with evil spirits. When Old English gave way to Middle English during the twelfth century, wicca and wicce became more or less interchangeable, and by around 1250, both had evolved into the single word wiche (sometimes spelled wicche). The noun's current form, witch, finally popped up around the mid-fifteenth century, and its verb senses, “to influence or affect by or as if by magic or devilry” and “to enchant or beguile,” came into use about fifty or so years later. (Some etymologists believe that the verb witch is not a derivation of the noun but rather a back-formation from bewitch, as the two verbs are essentially synonymous and bewitch actually entered the English lexicon first.) But the now common though informal noun senses of witch—that is, “old woman,” “ugly woman,” and “mean, spiteful, or overbearing woman”—are relatively new, having first appeared around the beginning of the nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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