Witches and Wizards

When I say the word “wizard”, what do you think of?

Probably something like this:

wizard

And when I say the word “witch”, now what comes to mind?

Was it something like this?

witch

Isn’t it amazing, the subtle biases in language? Theoretically, witch and wizard have similar meanings. One is a man who uses magic, and the other a woman who does the same. But they have very different connotations. Wizards in fiction are generally old, wise mentor figures, while witches are typically malicious hags. I’m guessing you didn’t think of Glinda, the good witch form The Wizard of Oz, or Voldemort, the dark wizard from Harry Potter. Notice that even when I’m writing about the differences in connotation, I feel the need to add modifiers: good witch, dark wizard, as if you would assume the opposite without them.

In the days of witch burnings, it wasn’t exclusively women who were accused. There were more women than men, but even as recently as the Salem Witch Trials, men were executed on charges of witchcraft. In the present day, it would seem bizarre to apply the term “witch” to a man, and the male equivalent, “wizard”, brings to mind a benign source of wisdom and magical help, a Gandalf, a Dumbledore, a Merlin. “Witch”, on the other hand, still has strong negative connotations. “Sorcerer” and “sorceress” might be closer to each other in meaning, but the latter still sounds a bit more suspicious than the former.

The wise old wizard and wicked witch archetypes are not unchallenged in modern fantasy stories. I’ve already mentioned two obvious counterexamples: The Wizard of Oz, which has both good and evil witches and an incompetent fake “wizard”, and Harry Potter, where almost every character is a witch or wizard. I used Dumbledore and Bellatrix as examples of the archetypes, but if you’re a Harry Potter fan, maybe Hermione came to mind when I told you to think of a witch. And yet, the double standard continues: calling a woman a “witch” is far from a compliment, implying that she’s as ugly and unpleasant as the archetypal wicked witch.

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