Saturday, August 17, 2013


This is just a funny one that I had never considered before. I happened to be watching an old episode of New Tricks last night, where the stalwart if aging team finds itself investigating a Wiccan coven. Along the way, someone brings up the word "warlock". Just a male witch, right? I mean, we've all watched Bewitched at some point or another, so we know this one. But in New Tricks, warlock actually means "oathbreaker". Really, I thought. That seems odd, and not exactly what I'd call neutral. So I thought I'd dig a little deeper.
Remember Uncle Arthur?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "warlock" comes from the Old English wærloga, which is a combination of  the word for faith or compact, wær, and a noun related to the word leogan, to lie. Thus, traitor, liar, enemy. In other words, an oathbreaker. It was from early on related to the devil, and meant one in league with the devil from about 1300.
Interestingly, though, there is an alternate theory as to how the word popped up in our other sense of "male witch", which did not appear in print until 1560 and came from Scotland. This version says that it may come from the Old Norse varð-lokkur, which means "spirit-caller".  The Oxford English Dictionary says this is inadmissible, but who's to say they always get it right?  Here's an article that takes a dissenting view. You should just read it if you're interested, as it has a lot of detail, but basically the author wonders if there might just be something  in the old  spirit-caller theory. He (we'll assume for now that "Tony the Hermit" is a he) questions the Anglo Saxon origin of the word. 
"Moreover, if it is Anglo-Saxon, why do we find it nowhere in England but everywhere in Scotland, where the Anglo-Saxons and their language did not penetrate? That is a major problem, and one I decided to track down."
I rather like his argument that the migratory path of the Scandinavian peoples carried them (and their language) to Scotland, and that a line like "But the docksy auld laird of the Warlock glen" (which he doesn't mention comes from a poem called "It Was On a Morn" by Joanna Baillie) makes more sense if it refers to a place of enchantment--where the spirits are called--rather than a place where sorcerers gather for maleficent ends. Of course, witchcraft and pagan lore have mainly been treated with deep animosity in Christianizing Western culture. Sir Walter Scott's passage from Redgauntlet  (1824):
"I will delate you for a warlock to the privy council!" said Sir John. "I will send you to your master, the devil, with the help of a tar-barrel and a torch!"
certainly isn't giving those spirit calling glens much benefit of the doubt.
This video talking about the meaning of the word warlock is surprisingly close to the line taken in the above mentioned New Tricks episode, which if you're wanting to hunt it down is called "Wicca Work". Both take the line that a warlock is not a male witch but one who betrays the coven. BlazeLeeDragon is a little more understanding than some might be about how words drift, though.


  1. That was fun. I wonder why there aren't a zillion books, films and serial TV shows on FX devoted to Oath Breakers? I think this is a niche market waiting to be exploited...I mean tapped.

  2. Oh, there probably are, Julie. We just don't travel in the right circles. I'm sure the ebook world is full of them.

  3. Warlock has crossed my mind a number of times, probably because it has assumed a form identical to those of two modern English words with which has has little or nothing to do.

    I'm guessing the war- part is related to the first part of wergeld, money paid to compensate the families of crime victims in Anglo-Saxon England.

    As for oathbreakers and their absence from television, I'll do something about that firs thing in the morning. I swear.

  4. Let's all collaborate on a TV show and make our millions.

  5. OK, you get started, and I'll join you first thing in the morning, I swear.

  6. You're in an earlier time zone than we are, so go right on ahead.