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The Fortean Times Weirdness Index announced recently that weird activity is increasing as the millennium approaches. Until I read that, I would have said the paranormal was hardly in evidence in the lead-up to the end of life as we know it, but no doubt they see matters more clearly.

What sounded a trifle odd was this use of weird. Its slang senses and its derivatives have become so common that it now seems hardly possible for anyone to use it in serious writing. From bearded weirdie through weirdo to the informal usage of weird to mean “something mildly out of the ordinary”, it has lost much of the force that it once had.

At one time it was a truly heavyweight word. One’s weird was one’s destiny or fate. The weird sisters in Macbeth were so called not because they were peculiar or outlandish, but because they were thought capable of controlling future events. And the three witches would not only have been described as weird, they would have been called weirds, a noun that often appeared in combination as witches and weirds. The Three Weirds were the three fates, the goddesses who were supposed to determine the course of human life.

A warning proverb had it that “after word comes weird”, another way of saying “speak of the Devil (and he will appear)”: you only have to mention something, especially something unpleasant, and it will turn up or come about. Weird could also refer to some supernatural happening, or be a prophecy of things to come.

Our much weaker modern standard English sense of “uncanny” developed only in the nineteenth century, no doubt because of the progressive slackening of belief in magic in the centuries since Shakespeare. Today it’s hard to suspend disbelief during “fire burn and cauldron bubble”. (I’ve not been able to look that scene in the face since the English fantasy author Terry Pratchett got at it in his Discworld novel Wyrd Sisters: “As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: ‘When shall we three meet again?’ There was a pause. Finally another voice said: ‘Well, I can do Tuesday’.”)

As a result of all these changes, the currency of dread has been debased, and we have nothing to put in its place.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 17 Apr 1999