Wizard Is An Insult

Apr 17, 2011 by

Recently on Facebook, Shane Bugbee asked if there was a female counterpart to the term “wizard”. Of course, “wizardess” came up, but this is a relatively new term and has no listing in the Online Etymology Dictionary. The earliest printed appearance of “wizardess” I can find is referenced by the online Oxford English Dictionary in Horace Walpole’s ‘Letter to Mrs H More, 9 Aug’: “I wish my Macbethian wizardess would tell me ‘that Cowslip Dale should come to Strawberry Hill’.” Another occurrence is from the March 1866 ‘Cornhill Magazine’. In 1904, L Frank Baum used “wizardess” in his The Marvelous Land of Oz: Being an Account of the Further Adventures of the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman.

Usage of “wizardess” is incredibly sparse until the fantasy glut of the 1960’s and 70’s which lends credence to the OED listing “wizardess” as a “nonce-word”, or pseudo-word, which meets a specific need which is not expected to recur. Nonce-words are most commonly combinations of accepted words and familiar prefixes or suffixes, such as in “wizardess”,  and are regularly used as wry jokes, but can also be logatomes found in nonsense verse. Some of the latter you may be familiar with are ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’, ‘quark’, ‘fnord’, and about 50% of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky‘, title inclusive.

So much for the ladies, but on to the insult at hand…

Etymologically, the term “wizard” breaks down into two distinct parts. ‘Wiz-‘ derived from ‘wys’, a 15th century Middle English term for ‘wise’ or ‘wise one’ and ‘-ard’ which is Old French, related to the Germanic -hard and -hart, meaning ‘hardy’. It took about 100 years for “wizard” to reposition itself from ‘wise one’ to ‘one with magical powers’.

In Middle High German and Dutch, the suffix ‘-ard’ was added to common nouns as a pejorative, perhaps using ‘hardy’ in the ‘stubborn’ sense. Drunkard. Bastard. Dullard. Sluggard. Paillard. The list goes on. Can you name any adjective ending in -ard which has a positive association? Steward and other similar words ending in ‘-ward’ as in ‘to guard’ don’t count. The only examples I can find which come close are “galliard” which is Old French for ‘lively, high-spirited’, “montagnard” meaning ‘mountain dweller’, and “communard” which is a member or advocate of communal living, none of which are particularly pejorative but in the right situation could indeed be insulting.

Think of “wizard” as a sarcastic Middle English way of calling someone a know-it-all. Lets face it, after a few years of the guy next door predicting “this storm brewing” and “that plague coming” people would certainly grow a little tired of them, regardless of their accuracy! Terry Pratchett has come to similar conclusions –or at least penned a very prescient witticism– attributing ‘wizard’ to a contraction of ‘wys ars’ or “wise-ass”.

Further evidence: there are many gender-specific, historical distinctions of other classes and occupations: sorcerer/sorceress, baron/baroness, governor/governess, actor/actress. Pejoratives ending in ‘-ard’, on the other hand, have no gender distinctions. Dullard, drunkard and others on the list are free from gender bias. Even “bastard”, while generally used today to refer to a masculine asshole, originally and still refers to any illegitimate child, male or female.

Then I found the proof. The Oxford English Dictionary listing for “wizard” begins thus:

†1. A philosopher, sage: = wise man n. 2. Often contemptuous. Obs.

“Wizard” is an insult. Or at least it was.

Language changes over the years whether from misuse or by specific design, (namely current trends in marketing and advertising,) and there’s really nothing we can do about it. While the contemptuous meaning of “wizard” may currently be obsolete, I shall do my best to rectify that in the future, (Sarah Palin is a political wizard!!) and I ask that you do the same, although that would mean extensive re-writes of all those Dungeons & Dragons tomes. (Are you listening Wizards of the Coast…?)

-M Styborski

In closing, I leave you a list of the ‘-ard’ pejoratives for your entertainment and intellectual pleasure!

bastard: early 13th c Old French. any illegitimate child
bayard: surname originally attributed to gentlemen of courage and integrity, later used to denote blind recklessness and eventually blindness
blinkard: originally ‘one who blinks’, later ‘one with weak eyes’
bragard: 16th c French, ‘to flaunt, brag’ possibly from ‘brague’ meaning breeches or more likely “codpiece flaunting”. forerunner of braggard and eventually, braggart.
buzzard: Old French c. 1300, an inferior hawk, later applied to the aged.
canard: literally ‘a duck’ in Old French, meaning ‘a cheat or hoax’ and eventually applied to ‘one who cheats’
clochard: tramp, vagrant
communard: late 19th c, advocate of the Commune of Paris of 1871 or ‘one who lives in a commune’
costard: large ribbed apple shaped like a green pepper, derogatory term for one with a similarly shaped head
coward: derived from coart, coe, coda and cauda, all meaning ‘tail’, implying one who ‘turns tail and runs’
dastard: originally meaning ‘dull’, current meaning despicable cowardice
dotard: 13th c Middle Lower German, ‘dote’ to be feeble minded from age. The association with infatuation, ie, ‘to dote on’, appeared in the 15th c.
drunkard: from ‘dronke’ 14th c, initially past tense of drink and drunkard referred to one who is intoxicated. by 1852 drunk had become a more popular term for drunkard
dullard: from 13th c ‘dull’ meaning ‘stupid’, dull attained ‘blunt, not sharp’ meaning by the 14th c
galliard: Old French for ‘lively, brisk, high-spirited’
goliard: a wandering student in medieval europe disposed to conviviality, license and ribald, satirical song
haggard: 16th c, originally referred to ‘wild, unruly hawks’, by 17th c ‘haunted expression’, by 18th c ‘careworn’
laggard: from ‘lag’ meaning ‘fail to keep pace’, by the 16th c, ‘one who lags behind’
montagnard: mountain dweller
niggard: ‘stingy, miserly’, 14th c ‘nygart’ of uncertain origin, Old Norse root ‘hnøgr’ meaning ‘stingy’
paillard: ‘a vagabond or beggar’, Old and Middle french, from ‘paille’, (origin of pallet) meaning ‘straw or straw bed’, vagabonds and beggars regularly made do sleeping on straw in barns
sluggard: late 14th c dialectical Swedish and Norwegian, ‘sluggs’, ‘slugje’, ‘heavy, slow person’ by the 15th c becomes ‘lazy person’
stinkard: ‘one who smells offensive’, from ‘stink’, originally meaning to ’emit a smell of any kind’ but by mid 13th c the ‘offensive odor’ connotation became the primary definition
wizard: see above.

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