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The Etymology of Magic

It is probably safe to assume that by now you must have “magically” discovered the keyword of this issue of The Angler: magic! It’s a beautiful word which might conjure up all kinds of be-witching (see what I did there?) im-ages and connotations as diverse as us humans. Some might view magic as pertaining mostly to witches, wizards, or a certain school of witch-craft and wizardry. Others may think of real-life magicians, or illusionists. However, what I would like to discuss in this article is not what the different connotations may be, but where the ultimate source of the noun ‘magic’ lies, the journey it has made through history, and what famous piece of literature is responsible for the recording and immortalization of one of the earliest forms of the word.

The online Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is of great help for all your definitions and any kind of background information on the English lexicon, as you will probably already know, or will soon find out. What we find there is that the earliest forms of the word entered the English language during the Middle English period, and were derived from the Middle French word ‘magique’. This is not surprising, as the period following the Norman Conquest had a great impact on the vocabulary of the English language as a result of contact between the French speaking ruling classes and the English. This contact period resulted in numerous new loan-words: a search in the OED gives over 10,000 words.

Around a dozen spelling variations of the word have been recorded. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that the now com-mon spelling of ‘magic’ came into being. Some of the earlier variations are: ‘magyk’, ‘maugik’, ‘Magika’, and ‘magict’ (a Scottish variant).

Interestingly, the form spelled as ‘magick’ was in use from the 16th till the 18th century and was then brought back mid-19th century and continued to be used until well into the 20th century. The OED suggests that the revival of this spelling variant may be credited to Aleister Crowley, who was, amongst other things, a novelist and ceremonial magician. Crowley appears to have been a prolific writer to say the least; he has over 60 publications contributed to his name, with extensive use of the word ‘magick’ in all of his writing.

The word is spelled ‘magik’ in a work so famous that all philologists and literary scholars know its name, as well as the entire British population... can you guess which work it is? Indeed, it’s The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer, who is known as the father of the English language. Although that might not be entirely accurate, he did singlehandedly record copious numbers of words which were first discovered in his manuscripts. The sentence which the OED gives as the very first occurrence of the word ‘magik’, coming from Chaucer’s General Prologue, reads as follows:

He kepte his pacient a ful greet deel
In houres by his magik natureel.

By this brief study of the roots of the word, the spelling variations it has undergone, and the author who has been credited with the first citation, I hope that the magic of the word has not been lost, but has increased.

by Miriam Dieperink