Today I’d like to use a bit on a specific set of terminology. I’m sure I’ll offend/annoy a few people, but away we go.
I have noticed a trend in recent years regarding the repeated use of the term “witch” to mean a female wizard. The trend was started by none other than my arch nemesis, J.K. Rowling, and perpetrated by the multitude of individuals desperate to A)not think for themselves and B)hope on the Harry Potter gravy-train.
Let’s be clear here: I’m not against witches. I do not have a moral or religious objection to the term. I think witches are silly, I make fun of them, but that’s not what this article is about(tune in next week for “6 pages of me making fun of witches!”)but I object to the terminology on a purely literary basis: a witch is not a female wizard.
In my writing, wizard is a strictly masculine term. The gender-nuetral word for magic-user is ‘mage’, a male mage is a wizard and a female is a sorceress. This also produces some confusion since, in my storyworld, there is also such thing as a sorcerer, which is a masculine term as well. However, you’ll notice terms aren’t always straightforward and unambiguous in the real world. Why did I deliberately create this confusing set of nomenclature? So my characters could make jokes about it in the story, of course.
Now, I also view wizard as a strictly masculine term, and object to other writers using it for women. I once read a synopsis of a book that revolved around the main character being a female wizard, I couldn’t stand it—but I’ll be honest: that’s more a personal preference than an incorrect usage of terminology. I would rather see the author apply a a separate term to the ladies than just lump everyone together under the wizard umbrella.
But that term should not be ‘witch’. The basis of my objection is this: witches actually exist. Witchcraft is a real thing. A silly, stupid think made up in the 1950s by a crazy plagiarist who did it for money and power, but an actual thing all the same. Magic is not. Magic is an invention of fantasy writers and storytellers, it is fiction(sorry to burst your bubble, there). Wizards do not really exist, magic does not really exist. These are worlds of make-believe, and they are a lot of fun! But witchcraft and witches have escaped that world and now walk in our own.
So now, when you call a female wizard a witch, you are lumping something real(and stupid) with something fake(and awesome). And yes, I am aware that there are silly people running around pretending to be wizards, but they’re basically just female witches, having attached the term ‘wizard’ to a modified form of wicca because they just liked Harry Potter SO MUCH.
Since witchcraft actually exists and does nothing, pairing it in fiction with wizardy makes it sound like wizards are equally ineffectual and silly. And if any witches are reading this, go ahead: cast a spell on me to prove me wrong. I dare you. But back on the subject, the use in fiction becomes problematic.
I think my favorite incident comes from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. In one book, Zed, the wizard, is accused of witchcraft by towns people. He actually stands up in front of the townsfolk and asks them to clarify if they think he’s some form of mage, or a warlock(warlock being the masculine for witch), not because he’s offended by their accusations, but because he doesn’t want to be called a girl.
This actually brings up another important point: witch already has a masculine term associated with it: warlock. A male witch is called a warlock, not a wizard. If you pair witch with wizard, where does that leave the warlocks? The unemployment rate is bad enough without forcing all those hard-working warlocks out onto the street!
So whether you take wizard to be gender-neutral or masculine, the feminine is not witch.
Why do people do it?
Well, like I said, it’s a recent trend spurned on by a recent ridiculously popular book series. Now, In Rowling’s case I am perfectly willing to chock it up to bad writing. I’ve ranted before about how horrible her books are from a purely literary standpoint, so I feel no need to dive into that for a… I’m gonna go with fifth time.
As for the rest, well, a good half of the young writers I have worked with were inspired to write after reading Rowling’s books. I’m not going to be mean here and say they couldn’t or didn’t want to think for themselves. No, in this scenario, its simple idol-worship: when you are learning to write it is common practice to emulate the style of your favorite author. My style is a blend of Terry Goodkind and Terry Pratchet, with a lot of my own original flourishes thrown in. But I did learn and practice by emulating, and that’s what a lot of others do.
So this is where the danger-zone comes in: when something terrible becomes extremely popular, you get a wide variety of copycats who don’t know any better. When you attempt to copy something, you’re only as good as your source material. When something bad gets popular, and everyone tries to copy it, their copies are going to be equally bad, if not worse. Harry Potter fan-fiction is so bad I think it actually has to get buried as low-order nuclear waste. Not because they are radio active, but because they have to be put with something radioactive so the radiation will KILL THEM.
But I should really lay-off Rowling; after all, if she hadn’t gotten so many kids into reading, I wouldn’t have the vast media empire I have now!