Armenian Language Corner

The Unknown Witches

Witches have never enjoyed good press, especially when they are of the evil genre. The word վհուկ (vuhook) has seventeen mentions in the Armenian translation of the Bible and none of them, predictably, sounds good. Let’s note that while witches are females, vuhook applied to both male and female cases.

Linguists have not been able to rescue the word itself from obscurity, which also contributes to its negative propaganda. The Old English word for “witch” was wicce, feminine of wicca (“sorcerer, wizard”), from the verb wiccian (“to practice witchcraft”), which was like the Low German word wikken, wicken, meaning “to use witchcraft.” But where did they come from? Several thousands of miles away, it is remarkable that vuhook sounds strangely alike to the Germanic languages. If you put aside the suffix ուկ (ook), the root vuh or vih has a certain resemblance to the Old English wicc (= wi(t)ch) and the Low German wikk/wick. We can then speculate that they both had an Indo-European source. In the case of “witch,” one theory says that there was a Proto-Germanic word *wikkjaz, which designated someone who woke the dead (the actual English word is “necromancer”) and was derived from a Proto-Indo-European root, *weg- (“to be strong, be lively”). In the case of vuhook, it has been assumed that it might have Iranian origin, although the actual source is unknown. In fact, several other related words had Iranian origin too. For instance, կախարդ (gakhart “wizard”) and հմայք (humayk “wizardry”). Of course, there is always the coincidence factor. In linguistics, when it looks like a duck, it is not always a duck. In the fifteenth century, St. Krikor Datevatsi (Gregory of Datev) made the first attempt to explain the meaning of vuhook: “The vuhook is the one who gives shape to the dead out of precipices (վիհ – vih) and abysses.” This is what scholars call a “popular etymology,” which starts from the random resemblance of two words and then goes to find some explanation, where usually the consequence comes before the cause. In fact, other than messing with the dead, witches made many other things.