Magic and the Weird

John Halstead writes of his understanding and embracing of weirdness:

What is weird actually seems to fall into a middle space between what is considered right and wrong.  In fact, it is perhaps the difficulty we have categorizing certain behavior that makes it weird.  What is weird is what we have no category for, what we cannot make sense of.  It’s no coincidence, I think, that the word weird, which used to have a very different meaning, came in modernity to refer to the supernatural, since increasingly there was no place for the supernatural in the modern world.

So when people say that something is weird, all they are really saying is that they don’t know what to make of it.  But the problem is that, when something is labelled weird, then most people don’t bother trying to make sense of it.  It just gets put in the mental dumpster with all the other weirdness that makes people uncomfortable.

I’m not sure how different that meaning of “weird” is to its original one.

The Old English term wyrd derives from a Common Germanic term *wurđíz. Wyrd has cognates in Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt, Old Norse urðr, Dutch worden (to become) and German werden. The Proto-Indo-European root is *wert- “to turn, rotate”, in Common Germanic *wirþ- with a meaning “to come to pass, to become, to be due” (also in weorþ, the notion of “worth” both in the sense of “price, value, amount due” and “honour, dignity, due esteem”).

Old English wyrd is a verbal noun formed from the verb weorþan, meaning “to come to pass, to become”. The term developed into the modern English adjective weird. Adjectival use develops in the 15th century, in the sense “having the power to control fate”, originally in the name of the Weird Sisters, i.e. the classical Fates, in the Elizabethan period detached from their classical background as fays, and most notably appearing as the Three Witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. From the 14th century, to weird was also used as a verb in Scots, in the sense of “to preordain by decree of fate”.

The modern spelling weird first appears in Scottish and Northern English dialects in the 16th century and is taken up in standard literary English from the 17th century. The regular modern English form would have been wird, from Early Modern English werd. The substitution of werd by weird in the northern dialects is “difficult to account for”.[1]

The now most common meaning of weird, “odd, strange”, is first attested in 1815, originally with a connotation of the supernatural or portentuous (especially in the collocation weird and wonderful), but by the early 20th century increasingly applied to everyday situations.[2]

Weirdness has, at least in modern usage, always carried the connotation of supernatural strangeness. Earlier notions were connected to ideas of fate, which I think still has some pretty strong supernatural connotations.

But I think Halstead’s assessment is still pretty accurate. “Weird” describes things that don’t fit neatly into our “normal” understanding of things, and that most of us dismiss because of that. What is weird is what approaches or crosses into the liminal between the everyday and the beyond, to that between place where those who do magic dwell and operate. And so what is weird for many people isn’t really unusual for us, and may not even be weird for us, since it very well may fit neatly into our understanding of things. And which makes us “weird.”

Which as Halstead says, is just fine. That’s where most of us want to be.


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