June 25, 2014

Case File #014.06.25: HAG

Although etymologists and lexicographers are not all in agreement concerning the origins of the noun hag, most believe that its roots wind all the way back to the Old English hægtesse, which was sometimes spelled hægtes or hegtes and basically meant “witch” or “sorceress.” During the thirteenth century, the spelling was altered to hagge and people started using the word to mean not only “witch” but also “demon” and “gnarled old woman,” and by the end of the fourteenth century, the form had become the contemporary hag and the noun had acquired its now familiar sense of “an old woman who is considered to be ugly, slatternly, or frightening.” In England, however, hag can also mean either “a bog or quagmire” or “a spot in a bog that is either firmer or softer than the area around it,” and in Scotland, the noun has yet another sense: “an overhang of peat.” But these boggy variants have an etymology altogether different from the witchy one. First coming into use in the early fifteenth century—or perhaps as late as the mid-seventeenth, according to one lexicographer—the uniquely British senses of hag derived from the Old Norse h ǫgg, which meant “a gap or break.”

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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