The Dictionary Does Not Define Us

Typical evil witch doing evil witch things

Typical evil witch doing evil witch things

Recently I heard someone say that witches are people who do evil magic, work with the dead, and that in most if not all cultures, a witch is someone who does bad things.  This was not said as a way of insulting witches. No, it was intended to make witches seem like badasses, and to say that we had better own up to our badassery if we want to use that word to describe ourselves–if we are not badasses, then we had better not call ourselves witches. It reminded me of this piece of crap art I saw once where a sheep’s face turned into a wolf’s. The basis for this definition of witchcraft: “Just look in the dictionary.”

First, let’s deal with the dictionary issue. A dictionary is created by very fallible human beings to help the user understand what might be meant by the use of a word in a particular context. It is not meant to be a book of truths or of absolutes. It’s about defining words in a particular situation, a moment in time, a social context. It doesn’t define practices, people, ideas, etc. It is just about helping us understand how a word is being used, nothing more. A dictionary is descriptive, not prescriptive.

The dictionary does not define social groups and is not used as a reference book by any of them. People who call themselves Christians, for instance, do not look up the dictionary definition of the word “Christian” to get a good idea of who they are or how they should act. If they did, they would find definitions that might well have little to do with their practice of Christianity. And bluntly, there is no reason why they should look up the definition of “Christian” in the dictionary because they define what a Christian is through their lived life. Their action in community defines “Christian,” not a dictionary.

This is why it is not a good idea to rely on a dictionary definition to support any argument whatsoever, and certainly not an argument that a “witch” is a badass who does bad things.

But okay, let’s set the dictionary issue aside and look at how “witch” supposedly pretty much the world over means someone who does things like make a cow’s milk dry up or menfolk become impotent or cast the evil eye or makes a field barren or any number of other shitty things because they are badasses. “The world” think of witches this way.

Evil Jews doing evil things. Henry Ford said it; it must be true.

Evil Jews doing evil things. Henry Ford said it; it must be true.

I can speak from my own experience on the question of how “the world” defines a particular group. “The world” thinks Jews are money-grubbers, that we secretly run the US government, we run the banking system, we control the media, we make the US work with Israel, we imake countries go to war so we can profit off it, we incite black people against white people just for the hell of it, I guess, we are an unspoken part of the alleged war on Xmas, and on and on and on. But “the world” does not get to define what a Jew is or does. Only Jews get to define that.

The same thing holds with witches. Witches get to define what a witch is, not “the world.”

Let’s look at the practice.

How many of the witches you know fit this definition? Pretty much none, I’ll wager. And having run an occult supply shop for 16 years, I have met a lot of people who call themselves witches. The few who have defined themselves a badasses who do bad things typically have a website where you can buy a candle for $1000 to put a curse on your ex. Ya know? IOW, they are more like shysters or con artists than witches. Maybe they got their definition of a witch from the dictionary; who knows.

Evil witches roasting a baby, because that is the real badassery

Evil witches roasting a baby, because that is the real badassery

To me, this badass witch thing is reminiscent of deriding people for being fluff bunnies or Wiccans. Like if you do not have a huge bone collection and regularly pal around with the Almighty Dead, you have no right to use the word “witch” in reference to yourself. You are a pussy and need to stay on the porch because you can’t run with the big dogs.

Bah fucking humbug, kids. Just as a dictionary does not define the practice of witchcraft, neither does a single individual. We have no pope, dogma, or orthodoxy.

One concept of traditional witchcraft that I really like is that of the Crooked Path. The way I understand this idea, the witch’s path goes now to the left, now to the right, now to the dark, now to the light. I could add other aspects to that, like that for me, the Crooked Path is about the moment, not the goal, that it’s not in a rush, that it’s a slow, sensual experience, that it’s solitary but might have a history (others have walked that path before), that it reveals the hidden and the unexpected, and more. But I will stick to the idea that it veers now to the Left Hand Path and now to the Right Hand Path. There is no room for badasses on such a path. A witch on that path might curse or cure.

Personally, I would much rather hear about someone else’s practice and what works for them than to hear them talk about how others are not real witches. I’m sick of that shit. And I bet most of you are too.

Just to bring this entry full circle, let’s go back to the dictionary definition of “witch.” You know what the 4th meaning of “witch” is in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? It’s not evil-doer, badass, bone collector, pal of the dead, eater of poisons, or any of that. It’s “a practitioner of Wicca.”

So let’s spend our energy on creating new and powerful practices instead of ranking other witches.

11 comments to The Dictionary Does Not Define Us

  • I watch a lot of YouTube videos re Wicca and have since about 2007. I wholeheartedly agree, I’d rather watch what works for someone because it’s much more fascinating than a person over-focusing on something negative. For me, I always felt conflict between my masculinity and the word ‘witch,” more than anything else, plus I’m leery of coming out of the broom closet because I don’t want to lose my job or respect of peers. I know it’s dumb but it’s what I’m going through right now. Interesting that you note some use dictionaries as if it were a god of sorts. All kinds of people are into literalism and fanaticism, even atheists. I like my tea more steeped in myths and magical thinking any day and I like that I get to define what being Wiccan is to me. Very good feeling.

  • Devi

    Well said! I am tired of the posturing. Give me the wise women who know their gardens.

  • Devi

    Wise women know their gardens. No need for posturing, and name-calling. Save the labels for the herb jars.

  • Holle

    If you cant deal with the thorns say out of the garden. Witchcraft is shaking off the chaff and bearing her teeth. If that frightens you or makes you feel insecure, well thats probably a good thing

    • herbalwitchcraft

      This is not about some emotional response, Holle. It’s not about fear. It’s about disagreeing with an idea that someone put forward as a truth. If you cannot deal with that sort of disagreement, maybe consider whether your version of witchcraft is not some sort of orthodoxy. That is not something the world needs more of.

  • Toddm

    I feel that it’s not just the way the word “witch” is defined in the dictionary, but also the way it has been used historically. Also, it is every bit as relevant as the etymology of the word. Which etymology always seems to come up when defining words. Another good example is the word “warlock”. (Unless you’ve been living in a cave you know the battle that has raged about the etymology of “warlock”.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that “witchcraft” and “Wicca” are not the same thing. If you don’t like the “badassery” of WITCH, then perhaps you are more Wiccan and should call yourself Wiccan instead of witch. (Though when Wicca was starting out in the 60’s through the 80’s it had its share of “badassery” too.) Wicca has become more and more whitewashed over the decades. But even today in the Traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca there remain a bit of “badassery”.

    Holle, I agree with you. If one wants the Lady of the Rose, then they need take the thorns too. Witchcraft is not all “Love and Light”. We are the Darkness and Maleficia too. All things in there own season.

    • herbalwitchcraft

      First, please read the actual blog post I wrote instead of just writing some reactionary response. Especially what I said about the Crooked Path.

      I feel sorry for people whose response to a different interpretation of “witch” from their own is to tell people to get out of witchcraft because they aren’t macho enough. IOW, people are unable to defend their argument and know only bullying as a response to any contradiction to it.

      I’m not a Wiccan. Never have been. But I don’t believe that “Wiccan” is some kind of insult. Before you were born, Wiccans were coming out of the closet, asserting themselves as witches in public and risking all in doing so. If they never did anything else, I admire them for that bravery. I am sorry that there are those who do not. Maybe people just don’t know any history. But the solution for that is to learn it, not to continue in ignorance and to act like witchcraft is some kind of dick-sizing contest.

  • Jill rodger

    Witch means wise one. When very few were learned in anything, a witch was the person who knew how to help a birth, lay out the dead, the best days to plant seeds. nothingnbad there. But if you had bought a love charm that didn’t work then your cattle got them urban. The you could say the charm seller had cursed your cattle. Yes Alexandrian Wicca has some very badass times, still does if you have anything to do with the website

  • Beryl

    Hi Harold

    Always enjoy reading your articles you sure voiced it well in this. A bit belated Happy New Year to you and all the best wishes for 2016 from far away.

  • I’m not a witch per se though my spiritual path has included many witchy views and practices in the past few years, and I’m thoroughly enjoying studying witchcraft and gleaning what I can from it. I’m not opposed to being considered a witch, and maybe I am. I see myself as a spiritual nomad and I’m happy to learn from whomever I encounter. Wherever something resonates, either in truthfulness, apparent functionality (i.e. it works!), or even simply personal enjoyability, I typically add it to my tool set. So though I’m likely not qualified to argue the definition of a witch, I like your main idea, and probably lean towards your view of witchcraft being more appealing than an egoic view that needs to include badassery. But that’s the problem with labels and trying to gain ownership of them — different people see things differently. And even an attempt to support something historically can often lead to conflicting conclusions. So your perspective of what a witch is probably differs than others’ views. And that’s OK.

    And I totally agree with where you took it to: “Personally, I would much rather hear about someone else’s practice and what works for them than to hear them talk about how others are not real witches.”

    Not that you need the agreement of a random internet passerbyer, but there you go haha.

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