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Thursday, May 4, 2017

What's in a Name? Imp, Elf, Fairy, Good Neighbor

When it comes to the denizens of Fairy, what's in a name? As it happens a lot, but there's also a great deal of confusion because many of the terms in English that we apply today to specific beings are rooted in generic terms that were once interchangeable. The water is further muddied by the widespread use of euphemisms, designed to encourage a positive response should you attract the attention of anything Otherworldly. These terms which we now think of as exclusively applying to one specific type of Otherworldly being a few hundred years ago, or less, were used synonymously with each other and different groupings of terms had certain connotations for good or ill. What one called the beings popularly named fairies today would dictate the way they would respond, and whether that response would be friendly or hostile. 

This Scottish poem demonstrates some of the variety of synonymous terms we see in the folk cultures:
"Gin ye ca' me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I'll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca' me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca' me seelie wicht
I'll be your freend baith day and nicht."
 - Chambers, 1842
[If you call me imp or elf
I counsel you, look well to yourself;
If you call me fairy
I'll work you great misery;
If good neighbor you call me
Then good neighbor I will be;
But if you call me seelie wight*
I'll be your friend both day and night]

La Belle Dame sans Merci by Waterhouse 1893

Looking at this 19th century rhyme we see an assortment of terms that can all be applied to the Good Folk, each of which either angers or pleases them. We're advised that calling a member of the Other Crowd an imp, elf, or fairy will anger them, while calling them 'Good Neighbor' or seelie wight will gain their favor. However all of these various terms are treated synonymously rather than as unique terms for different types of beings. There is no idea that these are different types of beings, but rather that these are all terms that someone might choose to apply to the same being. This reflects an older understanding that saw the members of Fairy more fluidly and less rigidly categorized. 

The first two terms mentioned, which are used together, are imp and elf. Imp comes to us as a term in older forms of English that originally denoted a child but by the 16th century had become a term for a small devilish being (Harper, 2017). Similarly the English word elf during that period was often used to both describe a malicious creature, often used interchangeably with incubus and goblin, as well as more generically to describe any Otherworldly being (Williams, 1991). There was often a fine, sometimes indistinguishable, line between the demonic and the Otherworldly and it was not uncommon in older sources to see the same being described by one person as a demon or incubus and by another as an elf or fairy. The activities of some of these beings was also a grey area that could be considered evil as it may involve seduction, violence, or death. So we see in the first line of the poem two terms often used to indicate potentially dangerous beings, with the warning that to call them such is to invite the danger they represent. 

An image of the Cottingley Fairies, circa 1917

Next we see the term fairy*, with the warning that to call them that invites great misery. The term fairy is actually a complicated one, of obscure origin, which was originally used to describe the Otherworld itself - the world of Fairy - and as an adjective for beings from that world or a type of enchantment (Williams, 1991). Only later would the word itself shift to indicate an individual being. In this sense it is strongly reminiscent of the Irish term 'sidhe' (later sí) which in the same way is a word indicating a place and used as an adjective, but that has recently started to be used to indicate the individual beings. When it comes to the word fairy in early sources, including Chaucer, we see the beings referred to often as elves and their world as Fairy (Williams, 1991). Why this word would offend them may seem less clear to us today, however just as the words imp and elf had strong associations with evil the word fairy at different points had pejorative uses, including being applied to sexually loose women and later homosexual men, in both cases carrying overtones of sexual impropriety (Briggs, 1967). These associations towards people only came later, likely because of the word fairy's meaning relating to the Otherworld and enchantment which when used to describe a person implied uncanniness and improper behavior. Since early sources do not indicate the word fairy caused any insult I would suggest that it was this pejorative association that was the source of the offense and with their dislike for the term. In a modern context fairy is possibly the most widely used generic term for all Otherworldly beings as well as a specific term for small winged beings. 

Next we see the term Good Neighbor, one of the more well know euphemisms. I haven't been able to trace how far back this one goes, but I do know that the use of euphemisms has a long history. For example we can find the term Fair Folk [Fair Folkis] in a work from 1513 by Gavin Douglas. The idea of euphemisms is simple: you use a nice term for them and they respond in a nice way. This is illustrated by the poem itself, "If Good Neighbor you call me, then good neighbor I will be". As such we see all the euphemisms reflecting positive qualities, from Good Neighbor and Fair Folk, to Good People and the Gentry. 

The final term used in the poem is Seelie wicht, a name we are assured that will gain us the friendship of the Fey folk 'both day and night' if it's used. Wicht is a Scots term, also found in related languages including Old English, Icelandic, and German, that simply means a living thing. Sometimes seen as wight in English it is often used in combination with good as a term for the fairies; guid wichts, good wights, the fairies. Seelie is a Scots term that means lucky, blessed, fortunate. So, in effect, seelie wicht means 'lucky or blessed being'. Understandable why they'd be so pleased at the use of this term then. It is also seen in one of the more well known Scots euphemisms for the fairies, Seelie court, which has grown into a complex concept in itself. 

So, what's in a name? Ultimately the meaning and context of the name seems to be the key to whether it pleases or offends the Othercrowd when we call them by it. They respond well to being complimented and flattered with favorable terms, explaining perhaps why the use of euphemisms became so popular, and are angered at being insulted. To offend them is to risk their wrath; to please them is to invite their blessing. 

*although in modern terms people tend to associate the word fairy with a specific type of small winged sprite, the word itself has long been used and is still used in many places to simply refer to any being of the Otherworld.

Chambers, R., (1842) Popular Rhymes, Fireside Stories, and Amusements of Scotland
Harper, D., (2017). Imp, Online Etymology Dictionary
Williams, N., (1991). The Semantics of the Word Fairy; article in the anthology 'The Good People: New Fairylore Essays'
DSL (2017) Dictionary of the Scots Language
Briggs, K., (1967). the Fairies in Literature and Tradition

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Morgan. I'm one of your loyal followers and faery witch in training. I wondered if you would be interested in doing a monthly guest post on my WordPress blog, Sisters of the Fey? I often quote you and I thought this might broaden your base. If you're interested, please email me at Thanks. ~Colleen~