Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

The Difference Between Magic and Magick. Some Fascinating Spooky Words. Holy Fagachi!

Episode Summary

899. Believe it or not, "magick" isn't just a funky way of spelling "magic." The two spellings have different meanings. Plus, we look at the unusual origins of other cool words that make us think of Halloween: "haunt," "grave," "mesmerize," and "macabre."

Episode Notes

899. Believe it or not, "magick" isn't just a funky way of spelling "magic." The two spellings have different meanings. Plus, we look at the unusual origins of other cool words that make us think of Halloween: "haunt," "grave," "mesmerize," and "macabre."

| Segment 1 on "magic" versus "magick" was written by Michaela Dunn.

| Transcript:

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, we’re going to talk about a bunch of spooky, special words.

Banshees, Witches, and Hags. Oh, My!

By Michaela Dunn

With Halloween right around the corner, there tends to be a lot of talk about magic. Or is it magick, spelled M.A.G.I.C.K. (henceforth referred to as magick with a K)? When looking through literature, especially fiction, it’s not uncommon to come across the different spellings of "magic." But this leaves us with the question of whether the two spellings have different meanings. With National Novel Writing Month also coming up in November, we wondered, is there a difference between a protagonist who does regular magic versus one who does magick with a K?

If we look at how the word "magic" has changed throughout history, the modern word, M.A.G.I.C., is derived from "magick" with a K. According to Britannica, the word "magic" dates back to at least the Ancient Greeks, with the earliest form being "magike."And looking through history, the form of the word hasn't changed much. "Magick" with a K appeared in Old English during the medieval period beginning around the 1500s; it was spelled M.A.G.I.C.K.E. The E at the end was dropped around the 1600s, and eventually the K was dropped too, giving us the spelling we see today.

Digging deeper, it’s important to take a look at the definitions and how people use the two spellings. Merriam-Webster defines magic as “the use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces” or “the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand.” Thus, magic is used by witches and other magical beings or by stage magicians.

It gets even more interesting when looking at the definition of "magick" with a K since there is no dictionary entry, at least in Merriam-Webster. But before we get to the definition of "magick" with a K, we need to understand when and why the archaic spelling came back into fashion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the revival of the form 'magick'…is perhaps due to the influence of Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), writer and occultist, who used the spelling extensively in his writings, including the title of his 1929 work "Magick in Theory and Practice." Crowley used the different spelling to differentiate his practice of magic from stage magic.

At the Harvard Pluralism Project, which studies the religious landscape of the United States, they describe the "magic" with a K that stemmed from Crowley's writings as part of Paganism, saying, "Today, the alternate spelling separates the spiritual practice from the fictional magic of fantasy novels and films. Magick (with a K) is not about cultivating supernatural powers, but rather about aligning oneself with natural forces to manifest an intention.”

So it seems that "magick" with a K is an element of a spiritual movement rooted in the idea of NATURAL powers, whereas the plain old "magic" spelling you're more used to seeing is the kind of magic that involves SUPERnatural powers.

Throughout history, magic has evolved both in spelling and meaning. The word has branched off to provide a way for people to distinguish between different types of magic. We hope that helps you as you're trying to decide which spelling to use in your writing.

And remember, National Novel Writing Month begins November 1.

That segment was written by Michaela Dunn, a Wyoming-based editor who specializes in literary fiction, historical fiction, and young adult and middle-grade fiction. She is also an editor with Yard Time Publishing.


This week, I also came across some really cool words that make me think of Halloween that had interesting origins, so let’s continue to get in that spooky mood!

Spooky Words with Interesting Etymology

By Mignon Fogarty


First is the word “haunt.” Can you believe it’s related to the word “home”? The roots go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, the language that was the progenitor for languages like English, German, Spanish, Persian, and more.

That super, super old root meant “to settle, to dwell, or to be at home.”

“Haunt” in English originally meant to practice something habitually or frequently, like this from an example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Honesty in deed I grant is one good point a wife should haunt to make her husband thrive.”

The connection back to a place, the idea of visiting a place often, came a bit later, but at first, it was about people. For example, Etymonline says in Middle English to “haunte scole” meant to "attend school."

We didn’t get ghosts haunting people in English until the late 1500s. Etymonline also says that the ghostly meaning of haunting–a ghost returning to its home–could go back to Proto-Germanic, but if it did, it disappeared for a while. Shakespeare was the first writer recorded describing ghosts as haunting people in English. First, in 1597 in “Richard II,” where he wrote, “Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,” and then apparently he liked it so much, he used it again in 1600, in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where he wrote, “O monstrous! O strange! We are haunted. Pray masters: fly masters: helpe.”

So today, we think of ghosts as possibly haunting many places or people, but haunting their old homes has the tightest link to the origin of the word.


Next, this is just a small tidbit, but I was really surprised to learn that when you use the word “grave” to describe something serious, like when you say someone is “gravely ill,” that word has a completely different origin from the kind of grave you bury someone in. I would have thought they were related.

The grave you bury people in, again, is really old going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European that meant “to dig, scratch, or scrape” and came into English through Germanic languages. Knowing the origin, it makes complete sense that it’s the same root that gives us the word “engrave,” like when you scratch a pattern onto metal.

The adjective “grave” that means “serious, weighty, or important” goes back to a different Proto-Indo-European root that meant “heavy” and came to English through the Latin and French route. And it’s the same root that gives us the words “gravity,” “gravid” (which means “heavy with a pregnancy”), and “grief,” which again makes me think of a grave where you bury people, but the words aren’t related. English is just full of surprises!


Getting back to ghosts, you may not realize that when you say you were mesmerized by something, that you were fascinated or spellbound by it, that the word goes back to a practice that was popular with psychics and mediums. The word comes from the name of the man who promoted the practice: Friedrich Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician, who lived from 1734 to 1815. He coined the term “animal magnetism” and believed that magnetic fluids in the body could be manipulated to create healing effects.

The Dickens Project at UC Santa Cruz notes that Dickens “had an enduring obsession with mesmerism” and “believed himself to be an expert Mesmerist.” Even though the practice was invented earlier in France, it became especially popular in England during Dickens’ time, in the 1830s. And Dickens at one point talked up two mesmerist sisters who claimed to have supernatural and clairvoyant powers and were later determined to be frauds. Interestingly, The Dickens Project ties Dickens’ fascination with mesmerism to his creation of the ghosts in “A Christmas Carol,” which was so influential they call him “the literary father of the Victorian ghost story.”

And we’ll finish with one more M-word that comes from the name of a person, or in this case, a family: “macabre.” 


Something that’s macabre is generally about death, or it can be gruesome or make people feel horror. For example, when I look in the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage, I see examples like referring to Russian roulette as a “macabre game of chance” and to the “macabre writings of Edgar Allen Poe.”

It’s thought to come from the phrase “Danse Macabre” in French, so it was a kind of dance of death. It involved images of people from all walks of life being summoned by death to dance together toward the grave and generally represents that everyone dies and in death we are all equal. Spain had similar images that were called “la Danza de la Muerte,” as did Germany where it was called the “Totentanz,” which again, in both cases, meant “dance of death.”

Interestingly, instead of using a French word for “death” as the Spanish and German names do in their languages, people think “macabre” in the French “Danse Macabre” was likely referring to the Macabees family — the same family that lends its name to two books that are in some Old Testament bibles and which place a heavy emphasis on gruesome martyrdom and promises of resurrection. It’s possible the murdered people described in the Books of Maccabees were featured in early renditions of the dance of death in France.

These books are only in some Old Testaments because they are part of what’s called the Apocrypha, so they’re in Catholic and most orthodox bibles, but not in Hebrew or most Protestant bibles. That’s a whole different story, but the Oxford English Dictionary says there is a link between the Maccabees and “the dance of the dead tradition in art and literature.”

The Danse Macabre, or dance of death, may also be quite influential for Halloween. I’ve seen references to the dance from the Middle Ages being a liturgical dance, a procession, a morality show, and a mystery play; and some scholars think the dance’s popularity in art and culture at the time may be tied to the great suffering from famines, the Hundred Year’s War, and most especially the Black Death. And finally, people dressing up as the dead and acting in plays or doing processions may be the origin of dressing up in costumes for Halloween.

So as you may have gathered by now, I know language changes and words have all kinds of meanings that can be distant from their origins, but I get especially excited about words that are used in a way that does relate to their origin, like when “magick” with a K describes magic rooted in nature, when a ghost haunts its old home, or when you describe a dance or costume as macabre.

Finally, I have a familect story from Abby.

"Hi, Mignon. This is Abby from Wisconsin. I called you years ago with the familect, but I have one now that has been nicking at me to call you again. So I have two young daughters, and when we moved to the house that we're currently in my older daughter was almost 4, and when we got here, we had a different type of bathtub than we had had in our previous house, and when you pulled the drain out it made a gigantic kind of tornado-like spiral funnel, and the first time she saw it at the new house, she looked at it and said, 'Holy fagachi!' which means nothing, but we cracked up so much, and she was little, so she kept saying it slowly over time, it has been shortened and changed by my younger daughter into just "the gachi," and we will ask them every night when they're coming out of the tub 'Do you want to watch the gachi or not?' and it's just kind of a fun little thing. I always smile and think of you, so it was about time I called and told you. Love the show, and I hope you and yours are well. Bye."

Thank you, Abby. That is adorable, and so funny! I wonder where she came up with "Fagachi"? And it's such a normal language thing for it to get shortened into "the gachi." I love it.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. And thanks to operations specialist, Morgan Christianson; digital operations specialist, Holly Hutchings; intern, Kamryn Lacey; and marketing and publicity assistant, Davina Tomlin, who has been accused by friends of wearing an excessive amount of velvet.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find me on Twitter and YouTube as @GrammarGirl. That's all. Have a safe and happy Halloween! And thanks for listening.