Etymology of “Witchcraft”

The word “Witchcraft” is not very old. It did not appear until the German habit of creating compound words bled over into early Middle English. “Witchcraft” is a compound word so we will trace the origins of both root words.

One of the earliest written references of “wicce” was in the Laws of Ælfred from the late 9th century (Harper). Witch is thought to be a relatively young word as well, deriving from the old English word (masculine) wicca* (feminine) wicce. These gendered words mean “witch” and exist only as far back as old English which we can date to the 5th century. Current thinking shows that proto-Germanic and proto-Indo-European evidence of any similar word, or root word is shaky at best. So “witch” is either an ancient word with a long-lost origin or it comes to us through a long line of translation.

WITCH

Wicca/wicce might have Slavic origin. The modern word for “witch” in some Slavic languages is most similar to the modern English word “witch.”

In Polish “witch” is “czarownica.”

In Czech “witch” is “čarodějnice.”

The Polish and Czech words are multisyllabic and at first blush, I admit they look nothing like the word “witch.” However, if you take language-drift into account and use phonetics as a guide, these words suggest a common origin. The word “witch” might be a carryover from the early Slavic, to Boii Celtic, to Old English, to Middle English, to Modern English.

Follow the History

During the 4th century, the Roman empire was in the East and the Western empire was in shambles. Latin was morphing into Italian, Occitan was born along with old French, old high German and old Brittonic. Brittonic is interesting because it is thought to be a combination of Pict and Celtic languages. Picts were from the North and Celts were from the south and east. The Celts brought numerous language influences with them, including Slavic influence, specifically through the Boii Celts. During the 5th century, Old English was a nascent pidgin language made by mixing Pict, Celt and Slav languages together.

Over the next five centuries, French and German languages became regional powerhouses in State matters. The working-class people spoke old English in a predominately French- and German-speaking world. During the 12th century, the French and German influences on the Pict, Celt, and Slav based Old English language created Middle English. Further East, the original Slavic languages continued to grow and develop on their own, into Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Polish, Czech and other Slavic languages. Slowly Middle English developed into what we call modern English (think Shakespeare) sometime in the 15th century.

Timewarp

In the 1940s and native English speakers in Europe and the Americas still pronounce the “w” sound as audible breath. Pronunciation before the 1950s was different than it is now:

Then                        Now
what = wh+ut         what = wut
when = wh+en       when = wen
where = wh+air      where = wair
witch = wh+itch      witch = witch

The Polish pronunciation contains the audible breath w sound in “czarownica” but in Czech “čarodějnice” the w sound is replaced with a hard j sound. Phonetically, the Czech word for “witch” is pronounced something like charo+djay+neetchza (Forvo).  The Polish pronunciation of czarownica is very similar with one important difference; czarownica = tzaro+wh+neatcha. Isolate the last two syllables of these Slavic words and hear, “djay+neatcha” and “wh+neatcha.” The Polish pronunciation contains a very similar if not exact match for the aspirated “w” sound that is no longer present in today’s English.

Could ancient Slavs have migrated West and become the Boii Celts who traveled further west to influence Old English? Perhaps! This is why Wikipedia says the evidence is shaky at best. There is no proof. I’m just a language loving witch thinking out loud. :)

CRAFT

Like “witch,” “craft” is also of uncertain origin. The word was present in old English but before that, we are again in speculative territory. There are similar phonetic words with similar meaning (skill, making) in old high German, Frisian, and even in old Norse, but the trail ends there (Harper). Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European tribal dialects are a muddy sea of possibility. To work etymology backwords we can jump continents to India and look at the Kannada word for craft “ಕ್ರಾಫ್ಟ್,” which is pronounced craft. Early Kannada language has existed for at least 2500 years.

Follow the History

The Kannadas of old were a sea-faring people on the west coast of India. There is maritime evidence of Indian connections in the Mediterranean Sea that date back to the Iron Age (Knapp). Trade involves a great deal of communication. It is possible that the Kannadas word for “craft” sailed from India to the Mediterranean, and that the word traveled over-land, from person to person with the goods that went as far west as Eastern Europe? Yes. Is there any proof? No! Welcome to the word of etymology!

Timewarp

The old German tribes are rampaging about Northern Europe, but trade with their neighbors to the south and to the west. “Kraft” is the German word for craft, meaning a trade-skill. Latin has the word “artis” with no phonetic relation to the old German or modern English word. The French word “artisinat” has the Latin root and again, no phonetic link to old, middle, or modern English. How did the ancient Kannada word get into old Germanic languages? Borrowing Occam’s razor to cut away the excess, the simple answer is that river trading between Kannada speaking peoples could have passed the word “kraf/t” to proto-Germanic tribes, and eventually the Saxons and to all English speakers.

In Conclusion

We cannot know anything more than the old English origins of “witch” and “craft,” but we can guess.  Etymology is a world of few facts and numerous possibilities. Perhaps the proto-Slavic word for “witch” and Kannada word for “craft” met and mixed in middle English, under the influence of German compound word-making thus producing Witchcraft.

 

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Notes

*The modern practice of Wicca was popularized in the 1950s by the English, male-witch, Gerald Gardner. The name of the practice is based on the Old English masculine title for a witch, although Gardner did not choose the name of the practice, he did take up the mantle. As early as the 1930s Wicca was practiced in English covens by witches studying what they believed to be the history of witches as set out by lay-historians who thought many (if not all) of the witchhunts in Europe and America were entirely truthful and not tainted with torture, false-accusations, and false-claims of magic usage. Historians as a whole see no evidence of any unbroken connection between Wiccan practices and older, pre-Christian witchcraft.

 

Sources

Forvo.”čarodějnice.” The Pronunciation Dictionary, 2019, https://forvo.com/word/%C4%8Darod%C4%9Bjnice/#cs.

Harper, Douglas. “witch.” “craft.” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2019, https://www.etymonline.com/word/witch. https://www.etymonline.com/word/craft.

Knapp, Stephen. “India’s Ancient Maritime History – Part 2.” Pragyata, 2019, http://www.pragyata.com/mag/indias-ancient-maritime-history-part-2-353.

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