The Little Tin God of Etymology

In a recent online discussion about the word “warlock” I casually mentioned that I was annoyed to see so many people advise newcomers to all things witchy “oh! don’t use that word! It means oath-breaker.” Oath-breaker? According to whom?

You see, if you ask anyone on the street to define a warlock, you will come across the usual answers: a sorcerer, a male witch, a conjurer, one who is in league with the devil. So, an oath-breaker? Well, maybe deceiver? Try this on for size:

Old English wǣrloga ‘traitor, scoundrel, monster’, also ‘the Devil’, from wǣr ‘covenant’ + an element related to lēogan ‘belie, deny’. From its application to the Devil, the word was transferred in Middle English to a person in league with the Devil, and hence a sorcerer. It was chiefly Scots until given wider currency by Sir Walter Scott.

Definition from

So oath-breaker might be imprecise as it does not also capture the feeling that a warlock is also someone who denies God. A person who ,instead, is in league with the Devil much like that ever-present malefic magic user of the Middle Ages… the witch.

Which is an equally interesting history. According to Britannica: “The terms witchcraft and witch derive from Old English wiccecraeft: from wicca (masculine) or wicce (feminine), pronounced “witchah” and “witchuh,” respectively, denoting someone who practices sorcery; and from craeft meaning “craft” or “skill.” Over time the masculine word became feminine. And that usage is still in vogue today.

So by the 18th century, warlock was — well — a male witch. That he made a pact with Auld Hornie is understood in the usage. But that he is a sorcerer is more important. He does the same evils as a witch does.

Example 1: Thomas Thomson, A History of the Scottish People from the Earliest Times (1896), page 286: “Where one man suffered as a warlock, ten women at least were executed as witches.”

Example 2: Journal of Jurisprudence and Scottish Law Magazine (1891), Execution of the Judgment of Death, page 397: “We read (Law’s Memor. Pref. lix.) that ‘one John Brugh, a notorious warlock (wizard) in the parochin of Fossoquhy, by the space of thirty-six years, was worried at a stake and burned, 1643.'”

Language purists may whinge about usage but it must be understood that meanings evolve. Don’t believe me? Call a happy heterosexual “gay” and tell me what happens when you insist that “liberated, jolly and free-spirited was the original meaning!”

As of the original meaning is somehow truer than the modern meaning.

The classic, if not classical, example is the verb decimate. Most people today use the word to mean “destroy a large part of something” and it has nothing to do with reducing anything by one tenth. Or using kids to refer to the offspring of humans as well as goats. Once letters to the editor and now comments on the YouTube video are full of this logical fallacy. The original word and the modern word have become separated by time, and sometimes space, to become different. The correct definition is going to be the one the average reader first thinks of given the context.

The word nice comes to mind. How far back are we supposed to go looking for the “true” meaning. For us a “nice time” was satisfying or pleasant. But….

Middle English (in the sense ‘stupid’): from Old French, from Latin nescius ‘ignorant’, from nescire ‘not know’. Other early senses included ‘coy, reserved’, giving rise to ‘fastidious, scrupulous’: this led both to the sense ‘fine, subtle’ (regarded by some as the ‘correct’ sense), and to the main current senses.


There are two errors going on here. The first is a semantic objection. Looking at the root etymon (original sense of the word) may be intellectually interesting but it does not tell us about the modern sense of the word. “Transpire” is from Latin “breathe through or across.” But it takes a huge mental leap to go from that to the popular sense of today as a synonym for “happen” or “occur.”

The second error is logical. One presumes two different words are the same.

  1. A hussy is defined as a disrespectful woman with many sexual partners .
  2. But a hussy used to be defined as a housewife.
  3. Therefore, a hussy means a woman who cares for her family and does domestic chores while her husband goes to work.

As practitioners of Wicca and modern witchcraft have both tried to reclaim the word witch as a positive title, then why not warlock? Why repeat a sense of the word that was passé before the printing press was invented?

“Etymology does not make a contribution to the description of the contemporary meaning and usage of words; it may help to illuminate how things have got to where they are now, but it as likely to be misleading as helpful (as with the ‘etymological fallacy‘). Etymology offers no advice to one who consults a dictionary on the appropriate use of a word in the context of a written text or spoken discourse. It merely provides some passing insight for the interested dictionary browser with the requisite background knowledge and interpretative skills.”

Howard Jackson, Lexicography: An Introduction. Routledge, 2002 via


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