December 19, 2013

Case File #013.12.19: WIZARD

Say the word wizard today and your listeners are likely to conjure up mental images of cinematic magicians such as Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” segment of 1940's Fantasia or Dumbledore in the more recent Harry Potter series. But etymologically speaking, there is nothing supernatural or magic about origins of the word. In fact, the roots of wizard wind all the way back to the innocuous Old English word wys, which simply meant “wise,” and from this those early English speakers derived the word wysard and used it to mean “sage” and “philosopher.” During the early fifteenth century, however, the form of wysard changed first to wisard and then to the current wizard, and it also began to acquire the connotation of prescience or prognostication. Not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the idea of a person who gains wisdom through foresight to give way to the idea of a person who gains wisdom (or power) by calling on supernatural forces, and by 1550, wizard had thus completely lost its association with the wise and had come to mean “one skilled in the arts of magic or the occult.” The now common informal sense in which the word means “one who is very skilled in a particular field or activity,” as in computer wizard or financial wizard, is much newer, though, having first come into use in American English during the 1920s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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