The Descent of “Hag”

By Mark Nichol

The headline of this post uses descent in two senses: This post discusses the etymological origin of hag, but it also points out how the connotation of the term has plummeted in status.

The contemporary connotation of hag is “old woman,” with additional senses of a careless, ugly, or evil appearance; the offensive term “fag hag” refers to a straight woman who associates with gay men. In the Middle Ages, the term referred to a female demon or an evil spirit, but it was originally associated with highly respected oracles, or soothsayers.

Hag is the truncated version of the Old English term hagetes (also spelled hagtesse), meaning “witch” or “sorceress.” The second syllable, later misidentified as a mere suffix, was lopped off, but that’s the essential element; it’s probably related to words in other languages referring to demons or spirits, while hag is likely cognate with hedge. The significance of that term is that hedges were considered the boundary between civilization and the wild, and witches—and reclusive women with mysterious healing abilities who were sometimes accused of being witches—straddled both worlds.

A term with a loose association, hagridden, refers to sleep paralysis, because of the belief that one’s sense of being immobilized while lying in bed was caused by a spirit bearing down on the sufferer; by extension, the term also means “tormented,” and the verb hagride means “torment.” Similarly, the rare adjective hagged originally meant “bewitched” and later acquired the sense of “gaunt,” due to the belief that such an appearance was the result of bewitchment.

Haggard, originally meaning “unruly” or “wild,” is not directly related—it comes from the Old French phrase faulcon hagard (“wild falcon”)—but it’s a distant relation that acquired the sense of “worn” by association with hag.

Other related words include the archaic noun haw, meaning “enclosure” (the first syllable of hawthorn), and hex, which originally referred to a witch but later came to apply to a witch’s spell. (Haggle has a separate derivation; it’s related to hack.)

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3 Responses to “The Descent of “Hag””

  • David Bennett

    To take this study further back in time: Ἁγία (Agia, or Hagia) is the Greek word for “holy” or “divine.” One of the most well known occurrences of the word is in the name of the famous Istanbul landmark Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God, or Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, Naos tēs Hagias tou Theou Sophias in Greek, better known as the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia).

  • Marilynn Byerly

    Almost every pejorative term used to describe a woman started out as an innocuous term. Just another way for the male population to sexually demonize women.

  • Thebluebird11

    @Marilynn: I’m just wondering which words you are referring to. Do you mean words like “broad” and “chick” (both are otherwise innocuous words, even now, that are kind of pejorative in their own ways, I guess, when a man is using them to refer to a woman).

    Still, as I think we’ve mentioned on this site in the past, people who have these words thrown at them often pick them up, wipe off the slime, and appropriate them for their own use, as a way of defusing their demeaning natures and getting back at whoever originally flung them.

    This brings me to the term “fag hag.” I first heard that word a little over 20 years ago; I became good friends with a colleague who happens to be gay, and soon became friends with some other friends of his, most of whom were gay. At some point I think I asked if his friends liked me, if they were OK that a straight woman was hanging out with them, and he just laughed (kindly) and said I was their “fag hag,” and honestly I didn’t see it as pejorative; it kind of amused me. I felt comfortable and accepted by him and his friends. Presumably if some homophobe had spit on me while calling me a fag hag, my reaction would have been different. But coming from my friend, it was OK!

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