Making it weird

In honour of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and his weird sisters, this week’s video looks at the history of the word weird:

The word for this video was chosen by popular vote after I asked for feedback in a previous video over the summer, so thanks to everyone for voting and giving me your feedback. “Weird” was the clear winner, and it certainly made it easy on me as it intersected with my dissertation topic from my grad school days, which looked at the conceptualisation of futurity in Old English. In my dissertation I looked at the nascent constructions for expressing future time in Old English, which didn’t have a regularized future tense. It started off with the question of how Anglo-Saxon translators handled Latin with its future tense, particularly with all the Christian texts which often dealt so explicitly with the future and the afterlife, and then expanded from there into a broader question of what language and language change can tell us about cultural concepts about time and the future. So wyrd in its original sense of fate was an element in that work. I’ve also blogged before about my ongoing interests about time, cognition, and language, so if you’re interested in reading more on the topic, you can see here and here.

The timing also fit well with the Shakespearean anniversary, and as an extra tie-in you can also have a listen to our Shakespeare film podcast episode on the recent film adaptation of Macbeth featuring Michael Fassbender. The great similarities and significant differences between Shakespeare’s treatment of the Weird Sisters and what he found in his source, Holinsed’s Chronicles, are interesting and instructive, and I’ll quote Holinshed’s version of the entire encounter at the end of this blog post below, but in his passage the three women are referred to as being “in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world” and are referred to as “either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science”. 

It’s a curious thing that the word ‘weird’ owes its reintroduction to the language pretty much entirely to Shakespeare’s play, and even more curious because it was a misunderstanding of the sense of the word. It really does seem to be the Romantic poets, particularly Percy Shelley, as well as John Keats, who popularised the new sense of the word. It’s in Shelley’s 1816 poem Alastor that we see the first glimpse of this new sense in the lines “ In lone and silent hours, / When night makes a weird sound of its own stillness” and “the woven leaves / make net-work of the dark blue light of day, / And the night’s noontide clearness, mutable / As shapes in the weird clouds.” Then a few years later John Keats seems to pick up on his friend’s unusual word in the 1820 poem Lamia: “I took compassion on her, bade her steep / Her hair in weïrd syrops, that would keep / Her loveliness invisible, yet free / To wander as she loves, in liberty.” Given that the word was somewhat recherché to begin with, only known through Shakespeare and in Scots English, it’s perhaps not too surprising that we owe such a now seemingly common and even slangy word to the pens of Romantic poets. Interestingly the word doesn’t really seem to pick up until the latter half of the 19th century, and even suffers something of a decline in the first half of the 20th, only gaining in popularity again around 1980 (see the chart below for the for the frequency of weird and some of its close synonyms). As the citations in the OED suggest, the word was picked up by such potboiler writers as Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer-Lytton (about whom I’ve spoken earlier in “Beef”), which might explain the mid-19th century uptick. As for the 1980s I suppose we can look to the pop culture references like the ones I mentioned in the video (Weird Al Yankovic and the movie Weird Science). It does seem to be in fairly contemporary usage that the word has reached its peak.

Now a few words about the Proto-Indo-European root. From the base *wer- derives a number of other PIE roots which then lead to a variety of English words through different routes. The main one from the video is *wert- which gives us not only weird and the various words ending in -ward but also worth, and the universe of words from the versatile Latin word vertere (including of course universe and versatile). The derived root *wreit- (also meaning “turn”) gives us wreath and wrath (think twisted with anger), and the root *wergh- gives us words such as wring, worry, and wrong. The root *werg- gives us wrench and wrinkle, *wreik- leads to wry, wrigle, and wrist, *werb- gives us reverberate, and *werp- gives us wrap. And of course as mentioned in the video, *wrmi- gives us worm, as well as vermicelli — think about that the next time you eat noodles. So as you can see this is a very large collection of cognates, and enough turning words to make your head spin.

Now for a bit more about the Norns. By some accounts there were actually many other Norns, who attended the birth of every child, but Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld were the chief ones. Here’s the description in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda: “There stands a fair hall under the ash, by the well, and out of this hall there come three maidens, who are called Urd, Verdandi and Skuld. These maidens shape the lives of men; we call them Norns. But there are other Norns who visit every child that is born, to shape its life, and they are descended from the Æsir, others still are descended from the Elves, and a third kind from the race of Dwarfs … good Norns, from a noble line, shape good lives, but wicked Norns are to blame for those whose lives are miserable.” This may be echoed in the idea of good and wicked fairy godmothers in fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. The name Skuld also appears as a name of one of the Valkyrie, but these two groups of women seem to have been conflated somewhat in some traditions. The forest maidens mentioned in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes”) are indeed a striking parallel with the Weird Sisters and come across as something like the Norns, but are also similar to the Valkyrie: “About this time Hother chanced, while hunting, to be led astray by a mist, and he came on a certain lodge in which were wood-maidens; and when they greeted him by his own name, he asked who they were. They declared that it was their guidance and government that mainly determined the fortunes of war. For they often invisibly took part in battles, and by their secret assistance won for their friends the coveted victories.” And like Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters, they appear to Hother again later to render him further assistance.

And finally some more senses of “weird”. In the video I focussed mainly on the noun and adjective uses of “weird” but it can also appear as a verb, from the Middle English period in the sense of “to assign a fate” or in the passive voice meaning “to be destined”. When Frank Herbert used the word “weirding” in his novel Dune, he was drawing both on the supernatural or magical sense of the word that developed later and on its earlier fate-related elements. But perhaps the most familiar use of the verb today is in the expression “to weird out” as in “to make someone feel uncomfortable”. In mathematics there’s also a concept called “weird numbers” which are explained in Wikipedia: “ the sum of the proper divisors (divisors including 1 but not itself) of the number is greater than the number, but no subset of those divisors sums to the number itself.” So for instance 70 whose “divisors are 1, 2, 5, 7, 10, 14, and 35; these sum to 74, but no subset of these sums to 70.” There’s also an acronym WEIRD, “western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic” used in psychology to refer to the statistical bias that often occurs in psychological studies that are, as is often the case, based on a sampling of the easily available undergraduate students, who therefore might not represent the population at large. So I suppose in a certain sense what seems normal might actually be weird. (And again, as Professor Elemental tells us, "There's no such thing as normal, everybody's weird!")

Here’s the full passage from Holinshed:

Shortlie after happened a strange and vncouth woonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realme of Scotland, as ye shall after heare. It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores, where the king then laie, they went sporting by the waie togither without other companie, saue onelie themselues, passing thorough the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund, there met them thrée women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whome when they attentiuelie beheld, woondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said; "All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis" (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The second of them said; "Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder." But the third said; "All haile Makbeth that héerafter shalt be king of Scotland."
Then Banquho; "What manner of women (saith he) are you, that séeme so little fauourable vnto me, whereas to my fellow heere, besides high offices, ye assigne also the kingdome, appointing foorth nothing for me at all?" "Yes (saith the first of them) we promise greater benefits vnto thée, than vnto him, for he shall reigne in déed, but with an vnluckie end: neither shall he leaue anie issue behind him to succéed in his place, where contrarilie thou in déed shalt not reigne at all, but of thée those shall be borne which shall gouerne the Scotish kingdome by long order of continuall descent." Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediatlie out of their sight. This was reputed at the first but some vaine fantasticall illusion by Mackbeth and Banquho, insomuch that Banquho would call Mackbeth in iest, king of Scotland; and Mackbeth againe would call him in sport likewise, the father of manie kings. But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken. For shortlie after, the thane of Cawder being condemned at Fores of treason against the king committed; his lands, liuings, and offices were giuen of the kings liberalitie to Mackbeth.