"Charms, Spells, & Hags: The Endnotes" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endnotes, where I put all the fun facts I can’t fit into the main videos! Today, some extra bits of information from my video about Magic — and if you haven’t seen that yet, click on the card.

So, practitioners of magic are often depicted as casting spells or charms. Well, the words incantation and charm both come ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *kan- “to sing”, via Latin cantare “to sing” and carmen “song” but also “incantation, prophecy”. Enchant comes from this same root. The word spell comes through the Germanic branch from the Proto-Indo-European root *spel- “to say aloud or recite”, from which it gets both its magical sense of an incantation and its sense of reading out letter by letter. A book of spells is called a grimoire, a word which believe it or not is related to the word grammar, because the arcane work of grammarians suggested the arcane knowledge of magic, and the Scottish English form of grammar is glamour, which originally implied magic, but gains its modern sense from the idea that a glamorous person kind of casts a spell on you. Personally I find books about grammar glamorous and quite magical!

Now there are more specific words for bad or evil spells. The origin of curse is uncertain, but it might be related to the word course from Latin cursus in the Christian sense of a “set of liturgical prayers”, or it might come from Old French curuz “anger” from Latin corrumpere “destroy” which also gives us the English word corrupt. The word jinx, in its modern sense, is actually a baseball term from the early 20th century, meaning “a person or thing that brings bad luck” or as a verb “to bring bad luck upon”. It comes from an earlier word jynx with a y which referred to a bird, the wryneck, which could also be used to refer to a charm or spell, since there was a tradition of using the bird for magical purposes. That word comes from Latin iynx and Greek iunx, ultimately from the Greek verb iuzein “to shout, yell” in reference to the bird’s call. In both Greek and Roman magical practises, the bird was used in spells to regain the affections of an unfaithful lover. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not such a spell should be considered a type of curse (ahem, male entitlement), but clearly JK Rowling was drawing more on the modern sense of the word jinx, especially when she had Hermione (mistakenly) identify Snape as using a jinx on Harry’s broom in his first Quidditch match, which is not unlike a baseball jinx I suppose.

Another type of curse spell, which also makes an appearance in the Harry Potter world, is the hex. The word hex is also a relative late-comer, first showing up in American English as both a noun and a verb in the 19th century, coming from Pennsylvania German, often misleadingly referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch. It can be traced back through Germanic to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to catch, seize; wickerwork, fence”. So what’s the connection with evil magic? Well, essentially the idea of the root is an enclosure, and this root also gives us the word hedge. But the word also seems to have gained magical implications, possibly from the liminal nature of a hedge or fence: safe and civilized inside, but dangerous and magical outside. Thus the root also led to the haw in hawthorn, an important tree in northern European pagan religion, and to the Old English word hægtesse “witch” as well as Old High German hagzissa “witch” which was later shortened to German Hex and hexen. The second element of those words is likely *tusjo meaning something along the lines of “ghost, spectre”, so a hægtesse was originally something that haunted the outskirts of a settlement. The Old English word was shortened too, eventually giving us the word hag. So a hag originally wasn’t just an old woman, but specifically a witch.

As always, you can hear even more etymology and history, as well as interviews with a wide range of fascinating people, on the Endless Knot Podcast, available on all the major podcast platforms as well as our other YouTube channel. Thanks for watching!