Fast Mash: On “Weird”

  • Weird comes from the Old English, wyrd, which originally meant “fate” or “destiny”
  • It is related to Old English verb weorthan (“to become”) and the suffix -ward (as in forward)
  • It is of Germanic origin, and at root is probably Proto-Indo-European *wer- (“to turn”; cf. verse)
  • Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” in Macbeth is attributed with fueling its shift from “fate” to “uncanny”

In the first act of Macbeth, as the Three Witches are a-fouling and a-fairing their prophecies, they all dance in a ring and chant:

The weird sisters hand in hand,

Posters of the sea and land,

Thus do go about, about,

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,

And thrice again to make up nine.

Peace! The charm’s wound up. (I.3.30-35)

Macbeth & Banquo meet the Weird Sisters. From the Holinshed Chronicles (see below), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I think we’ve all felt this way about sisters–or multiplication tables, for that matter–at one point or other, but these sisters are weird in more ways than one. See, weird is, well, a weird and wonderful example of how the meaning of a word can change.

It’s Getting Wyrd

Old English had wyrd, a noun that meant “fate” or “destiny.” Pronounced something like the rounded, French u this y would have made the word sound more like word than its descendant weird.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) earliest attestation of wyrd is around 725, referring to “the Fates, three goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life.” The Three Witches are also known as the Weird Sisters because they were the Fate Sisters. Shakespeare is known to have drawn from Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland for the historical Macbeth, including “the weird sisters,” although the bard no doubt made them his own, too, with his conjury.

(In the First Folio, the English major in me must note, the text presents weyward for weirdlikely riffing on wayward, which he liked to use. (I know this because Shakespeare told me. Through the years, as the OED documents, wyrd was represented as weyrd and weyard, so wayward‘s influence on weird is understandable.)

This trope of three, fate-wielding women taps into a significant archetype in Western mythology. The Greeks had the Moirai, the Romans had the Parcae, and the Norse the Norns.

These Norns were Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld. The name of the first, Urðr, also meant “fate”–literally, “that which has come (to be)”–and is cognate to the Old English wyrd. So is Verðandi; it means “that which will come (to be).” Skuld, it turns out, is related to the English “shall,” with its meaning of “that which should be.”

Ludwig Berger’s 1882 Norns beneath the Yggdrasil tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Twisting and Turning

The English wyrd shares the lexical life of the Norns, literally signifying “that which comes (to be).” And behind this notion of “coming to be” is, we think, a Proto-Indo-European root, *wer-, meaning “to turn, twist, bend.”

This twisting and turning lives on in a great number of words. According to Jordan Shipley, *wer– assumed various forms that have become, in English, everything from virgin and vermiform to verse, vertebrate, and the huge family of words featuring –vert-/-version (e.g., convert). We shouldn’t forget English’s own clan of words featuring the suffix –ward and -wards (Old English: -weard). As Eric Partridge comments on –ward, “The endings connote a turning, a being turned, in the direction denoted by the precise element.”  He lists: backward, downward, forward, homeward, inward, rearward, toward, upward, and, appropriately enough, wayward.

Why is there toward and towards? The s in the latter form is leftover over from the genitive (possessive case) ending in Old English. So, this –ward would have been -weardesTypically, the –ward words are adjectival, while the –wards adverbial, but this is not a strict distinction and one that is increasingly breaking down.

You Can’t Turn Back Now

As we saw in the above discussion of the names of the Norns, Germanic languages ended up using *wer– and its metaphor of turning for a common verb for “to become.” In Old English, it the verb was weorthan, which survives as a kind of vestige in expressions like woe worth the day–woe becomes, befalls, or betides the day.

I’d speculate that the guiding principle here is a notion of directionality, a you-can’t-turn-back-now on-the-course-ness, the inevitability and destination of -ward–all being wrapped into ideas of becoming. Any fan of The Walking Dead will be familiar the idea: “He’s turned,” viz., he’s become a zombie. Indeed, English regularly uses the “turn” and “turn into” to convey “becoming.”

 Worth, as in “worth a lot of money,” from Old English weorþ, might also come from this root *wer-, perhaps on the grounds of value as the kind of equivalency implied by “becoming.” Worship, featuring a meaning of weorþ as honorable, joins this word with the suffix –scipe, as in “friendship.” So, worship originally is a condition of being worthy, shall we say, of worship.

From Destiny to the Everyday

So, if the Weird Sisters were the Fate Sisters, this weird was originally an adjective form of weird describing someone or something that has the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, to paraphrase the OED. But, as Ernest Klein observes, “the sense of ‘uncanny’ arose from a misunderstanding of the real meaning of the adjective weird, in the term weird sisters (the Fate Sisters), applied to the Norns.”

The misunderstanding–or “folkchange,” as Shipley more aptly calls is–understandable. Given its “currency” in Macbeth (OED), the association of weird with fate and concomitant mythology weakens, as what is most salient about the weird sisters is their odd, strange, and frightening nature.

Interestingly, the OED gives other literary giants–Shelley and Keats–the citation for the shift from fateful to frightful. Shelley describes the unusual appearance of “weird clouds” in 1816 and a “weird cave,” suggestive of the supernatural, in 1817. In 1820, Keats writes of “weird syrops” to paint their oddness.

Today, weird may not evoke “destiny,” but, aside from a general adjective for “strange” or “unusual,” whether of events or persons, it lives a fulfilling life, if my ears are any measure, as a go-to  commentary that signals acknowledgement, much in the way of awesomeinteresting, or crazy in their everyday contexts

Coworker: It turns out my mom is a third cousin of the creator of the game Monopoly.

You: Huh. That’s weird.

It’s really not that weird, but that’s not the point. One idea, expressed by a word, gets likened to another. We use it in a new way; we change it. We exaggerate, we overuse, we dilute. Though far away from its original meaning of “fate,” weird is no less powerful. It’s just different, a little weird, if you will. And I love this about the word.



4 thoughts on “weird

  1. Interesting. I like “The Fateful Sisters” better than “The Fate Sisters.” Also, it occurred to me that “wer” must be the active element in “werewolf” (become-a-wolf), but my New Oxford American Dictionary says it’s from the OE “wer,” meaning “man” (“man-wolf”). Hmm.


    1. Yes, “The Fateful Sisters” has a better ring to it, if “The Fate Sisters” packs a bigger punch, if you will.

      I like your thinking on “werewolf,” but yes, “wer” is an Old English word for “man.” If you took Latin, you might remember “vir.” It is cognate to this “wer” and gives English words like “virile” and “virtue.”


    1. Excellent! I did not come across this in my research, but it does ring a bell, perhaps most from “Dune,” though. My initial queries aren’t turning up much outside of its usage there. Do you hear it/use it at all as part of a regional dialect or some such?


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