Fairy

Here is an interesting word, a nice example of how perceptions can change. These days, we may think of fairies and our minds go to fairytales, to cute little creatures with wings and wands, the stuff of children’s films and stories.

But this has not always been the case, and fairies have also been viewed as terrifying beings. Certainly, the fairies in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are nothing like the Tinkerbells of Disney.

The word came into English in the 1300s, from Old French. It meant both ‘supernatural being’ and ‘home/ country of supernatural beings’. There were a number of spellings in Middle English, such as fayri, faeri, feyry, fairi, and so on.

Let’s take a look at an example of it from John Lydgate‘s work King Henry VI’s Triumphal Entry into London, dating to 1435

Twoo olde men..dydde appere lyke ffolkes off ffeyrye.

(Two old men did appear, like folks of fairy).

In this case, it is the country that is referred to with the word ‘fairy’, and indeed faerie in Old French appears to have been most common with this meaning. Old French developed the word from Latin fata, which meant the Fates, or the goddesses of destiny. The English word fate obviously comes from the same source, making it a cognate of fairy.

But we can do better than this. We can trace the word back further. The Latin word fata is the plural of fatum, which literally means “utterance”. It was formed from fari, which means “utter”. Thus, fate is “that which is uttered” (the implication being that it is the gods who are doing the uttering!). This Latin meaning helps us to trace the word to its earlier source in Proto-Indo-European. It comes from the root *bha-, meaning ‘speak, say’. Cognates such as Sanskrit bhanati, ‘speaks’, Old English ben ‘prayer, request’, English ban, Greek φωνή [foni] ‘voice, sound’ and others attest to this root.

Did you notice the modern English word? Yes. Ban is a distant cognate of fairy. Make of that what you will.

8 thoughts on “Fairy

  1. “fata” is also the Romanian word for “girl”. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions about how people view the inner strength of women, in a way.

  2. The source of Romanian fata, though, is a little more prosaic, deriving from the Latin adjective fēta with meanings covering “pregnant”, “fruitful”, and “nursing”, from the PIE root *dʰeh₁(y)- meaning to nurse or suckle.

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