Weird is an example of a word whose most common modern meaning is quite different from its original English meaning. The word, originally a noun, dates back to Old English, where it meant fate or destiny. By the Middle English period, it was being used to refer the three Fates of Greek and Roman myth, and in Scotland this sense evolved into that of a witch. This Scottish use was Shakespeare’s inspiration for the three weird sisters in Macbeth. The modern adjective, however, does not appear until the 19th century, undoubtedly modeled on Shakespeare’s use.
Weird is found in Beowulf (spelled wyrd) as a noun meaning fate or destiny:
Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel.
(Fate goes ever as fate must.)
Hie wyrd forsweop on Grendles gryre.
(Fate sweeps them away into Grendel’s clutches.
Also, quite early on it was used to mean someone who controlled another’s fate, either a personification of fate, like the three Moirae and Parcae (Fates) in Greek and Roman myth, or a magical being such as a witch. Hessels’ Corpus Glossary glosses wyrde as Parcae from sometime before the year 725. And Chaucer has this from his c.1385 The Legend of Good Women:
The werdys that we clepyn destene Hath shapyn hire that she mot nedis be Pyetous sad.
(The weirds that we call destiny have determined that she must necessarily be piously solemn.)
The use of weird as a synonym for witch was quite common in Scotland. From Peter Heylin’s Microcosmus of 1625:
These two...were mette by three Fairies, or Witches (Weirds the Scots call them).
The use of weird as an adjective dates to around 1400 and is found in the manuscript (Scottish) Trojan War:
Vþeris said sche was, I trow, A werde-sister, I wait neuir how.
(Utheris she was, I trust, a weird-sister, I wait never how.)
The phrase weird sister is found in several manuscripts leading up to its most famous appearance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Until its appearance in the Scottish Play, the adjectival use was restricted to the phrase weird sister. Only after Shakespeare used the term, did its use expand to other contexts.
The modern adjectival sense, meaning strange or uncanny, dates only to the early nineteenth century. Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary only records it as an adjective, “no longer in use,” meaning skilled in witchcraft. Shelley uses the word several times. From his 1817 The Revolt of Islam, used in the sense of something supernatural:
Some said, I was a fiend from my weird cave, Who had stolen human shape.
And from his 1815 Alastor, used in the sense of something odd or strange:
Mutable As shapes in the weird clouds.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Beowulf, tr. Seamus Heaney)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton