A post about magic? Wizard!

I went to the Borders in downtown Boston yesterday, one of the 200 that is closing as part of the company's bankruptcy. (I always feel bad about going to store-closing sales, like I am rifling through the pockets of a corpse.) I picked up the opening books of two series' that I've been wanting to try out, Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" and S.M. Stirling's novels of "The Change."

The Dresden Files are an urban fantasy, about a wizard private eye in Chicago. I devoured the first book, Storm Front, in less than 24 hours. It was a quick, fun read, and had a bit of etymology in it that I wanted to check out:

  • "Wizardry is all about thinking ahead, about being prepared. Wizards aren't really superhuman. We just have a leg up on seeing things more clearly than other people, and being able to use the extra information we have for our benefit. Hell, the word wizard comes from the same root as wise."

Here is the relevant part of the  OED etymology on wise:

  • From the Old English wíse, meaning manner, mode, condition, thing, affair, cause, reason, (occasionally) song = Old Frisian wîs, Old Saxon wîsa (Middle Low German wîse, wîs, Middle Dutch wîze, wijs, Dutch wijze), Old High German wîsa, and wîs, meaning manner, custom, tune (Middle High German wîse, German weise).

And for wizard:

  • From the late Middle English wysar or wysard, from wys, wis, wiss, wise + -ard.

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the -ard suffix is a pejorative, as in drunkard. And that's where wizard's roots are, as the OED gives its oldest (and now obsolete) definition as "a philosopher, sage: = wise man Often contemptuous." The OED's first citation for that is circa 1440. Interestingly, the first use of the definition in a magical context -- "a man who is skilled in occult arts; in later use, a man who practises witchcraft (the male counterpart of witch)" -- doesn't appear until 1552, after medieval times, which is the time period I most  associate with wizards and such. (Unless I am reading a fantasy novel.)

I spot-checked a few other names for practitioners of magic that I could think of to see when they entered the language:

  • Witch: Etymology: "Old English wicce, corresponding to wicca, meaning witch, both of which are apparently derivatives of wiccian." First citation is circa 1000, and then in the form wiccan.
  • Sorcerer: Etymology: "Sorcer + -er. From the Old French sorcier (compare Italian sortiere, Spanish sortero) from the popular Latin sortiarius." A sorcer (first cited use is in 1400) is a sorcerer (first cited use was in 1526).
  • Warlock: This actually has a long and complicated history that would be good fodder for a full post, but it also entered the language, in the sense of a practitioner of magic, around 1400.

So of these four classic names for magicians, only witch has roots that go deep into the Middle Ages. This isn't to say that they didn't have words for magicians back then, just that these words that we associate with stories of ancient magic aren't as ancient as we might think.