Learn English – Why are female wizards called “witches”


I was looking up these two words in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English:

Wizard: 1. a man who is supposed to have magic powers 2. someone who is very good at something

Witch: 1. a woman who is supposed to have magic powers, especially to do bad things 2. an insulting word for a woman who is old or unpleasant

It's mentioned in the Word Origin section that Wizard comes from "Wise", while for "Witch" it totally has a negative meaning, and all in all, apart from this definition, witch is usually negative, while wizard is neutral (or even positive sometimes?!). Isn't this somewhat sexist?

P.S. Both words imply the same occupation, where the female version is negative and the male one is just neutral or even positive. Is it only bad if a woman does it?!

Best Answer

I have actually seen witch used in a male sense as well.

If we look at etymonline, it gives the following definitions:


Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use especially "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts," fem. of Old English wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic," from verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft" (compare Low German wikken, wicken "to use witchcraft," wikker, wicker "soothsayer").

(note that the entry is much longer and that the origins are actually not very clear!)


early 15c., "philosopher, sage," from Middle English wys "wise" (see wise (adj.)) + -ard. Compare Lithuanian zynyste "magic," zynys "sorcerer," zyne "witch," all from zinoti "to know." The ground sense is perhaps "to know the future." The meaning "one with magical power, one proficient in the occult sciences" did not emerge distinctly until c.1550, the distinction between philosophy and magic being blurred in the Middle Ages. As a slang word meaning "excellent" it is recorded from 1922.

There seems to have been, based on the assumed origins, a difference between "good magic" linked to knowledge and wisdom for wizard, and "bad magic" linked to "heathen practices".

It seems far-fetched to actually take wizard simply as a male version of witch and vice-versa. The etymonline entry for witch, as well as the OED (thank you Peter Shor) show that the male version of wicce was wicca. They were people involved in witchcraft, magic — supernatural things, rather than wisdom (wizard).

They seem to denote similar but different occupations, one of which became mainly associated with man, the other with women.

About the negative connotations that surround the "female" version... yes, that is sexist. And this is a very common occurrence in (many) language(s). Even though (and I am glad) this is often frowned upon by many people nowadays, and many speakers tend to avoid making distinctions between male and female practitioners of the same profession, in the past it was very common to see a clear (quality) distinction between the male and female versions.

Even nowadays, if one reads these lines:

John is a secretary.
Mary is a secretary.

There will be plenty of people assuming that John sits on a board or a committee, while Mary is a personal assistant. (The distinction is even "worse" in languages that use a distinct version of the word, like in Dutch "secretaris" and "secretaresse" — the latter is grammatically the female version, but in reality denotes a different job!)

Compare also "steward" to "stewardess".

It is a simple fact that language exhibits sexist (and sometimes racist and otherwise discriminatory) tendencies. That may be unfortunate, but it should be hardly surprising.