Magical words evolved over time

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Today, most of us regard magic as a form of entertainment associated with particular events, like Hallowe'en, or with performers making objects appear or disappear before our very eyes. To the modern adult, magic is just a lot of hocus-pocus.

Once upon a time, magic was something very different. A thousand or so years ago, a practitioner of magicóthe magicianówas someone who strove to uncover the secrets of nature for the purpose of manipulating the course of events, someone who used his knowledge and power to exert influence over people's lives.

Many of the words originally linked to magic survive to this day. By now, however, they have slipped far away from their original meaning, and most of us use them without being aware of what they once signified. The same applies to words taken as synonyms for magician, such as sorcerer, wizard, witch and conjurer, whose subtle but significant differences have become blurred.

The root of magic is "magus," the word for an ancient Persian priest, as in the biblical Three Magi, the three wise men from the East. Sorcerer comes from the Latin "sors," meaning sort, fortune, destiny. It also means prophecy, and therefore the sorcerer was akin to a fortune-teller, whereas the magician was a kind of philosopher.

Wizard grew out of the Middle English word for wise and thus it, too, originally denoted a philosopher. Our word witch comes from "wicce," an Old English word also linked to fortune-telling, although the Latin for witch, "venefica," relates to poison. Another Old English word referring to witch is "hegtes," which gave us our word hag.

The Latin verb "conjurare," meaning to conspire, is the source for conjurer, which by the Middle Ages identified a person who invoked a sacred name to cause something supernatural to happen. Conjurers cast spells, from the Gothic "spill," meaning recital or tale. By the sixteenth century, spell referred to the incantation uttered by the conjurer. Nowadays you don't have to be a conjurer to cast spells. It's done by the film and advertising industries, which resort to increasingly outrageous spells to keep the public spellbound.

Charming and enchanting are words we use liberally to signify that something or someone pleases us. Centuries ago, these words had meanings that were far from pleasant or positive. Then, if you were enchanted, it was a misfortune because it meant a spell had been cast over you. Charm derives from the Latin "carmen," the word for song, oracular response, incantation. Originally, to be called charming was to be accused of possessing the power to bewitch.

Nowadays fascinate is another word that we use as loosely as charm and enchant. Its source is "fascinare," the Latin for bewitch, and originally it meant to put someone under a spell by a look. We come close to its old meaning when we say, for example, "I was so fascinated I couldn't take my eyes off it."

Glamour, a quality now associated with rich, beautiful people and their lifestyle, derives from the fifteenth-century English word "gramarye," meaning magic or occult learning. So if someone says they're fascinated by your glamourous Hallowe'en costume, consider responding, "Pshaw, that's just a lot of abracadabra."

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This page last updated: November 19, 2011.