From Wiktionary: Fairy : Etymology

From Middle English fairie, from Old French faerie, the -erie abstract of fae, from Vulgar Latin Fāta (“goddess of fate”), from Latin fātum (“fate”)

This seems to indicate that 'fairies' is a term that was made up to encompass all those Fairy Tales (like how all/most Pagan Gods -> Demons in Christianity in the past). That would indicate that what we call 'fairies' were, in the languages that their stories originated from, 'sidhe', 'alfar' (Elves), or pigsie (Pixies)...

Could someone confirm my theory?

  • Are you asking for when tales of fairies first appeared?
    – HDE 226868
    May 23, 2015 at 14:45
  • @HDE226868 - No... I think I'm asking if 'fairies' is a term that was made up to encompass all those Fairy Tales, sorta like how all/most Pagan Gods -> Demons in Christianity in the past. ... Perhaps Ling.SE would be a better fit?
    – Malady
    May 23, 2015 at 14:47
  • We have some questions on names and related topics; I think this is fine here. Thanks for clarifying.
    – HDE 226868
    May 23, 2015 at 14:48

3 Answers 3


The Old English word for fairies is elf (Online Etymology Dictionary):

“one of a race of powerful supernatural beings in Germanic folklore,” Old English elf (Mercian, Kentish), ælf (Northumbrian), ylfe (plural, West Saxon) “sprite, fairy, goblin, incubus,” from Proto-Germanic *albiz (cognates: Old Saxon alf, Old Norse alfr, German alp “evil spirit, goblin, incubus”), origin unknown; according to Watkins, possibly from PIE *albho- “white.”

The Old French word for fairies is faerie:

“land of fairies, meeting of fairies; enchantment, magic, witchcraft, sorcery” (12c.), from fae “fay,” from Latin fata “the Fates,” plural of fatum “that which is ordained; destiny, fate,” from PIE *bha- “to speak” (see fame (n.)).

The entry for fate notes that it’s also connected to the concept of guiding spirits in general and not just specifically the Fates, just as an elf is rooted in the concept of mischievous spirits in general.

Thus, faerie is simply the French word for the concept, just as elf is the Germanic word and sidhe is the Gaelic word for it. The development of the English language is such that a lot of native words were replaced or augmented with their French equivalents. For example, the native English word for the concept of fate is wyrd, which still survives as one of the meanings of weird, but is mostly supplanted by the Latinate word fate, very much like how elf shares with the Latinate fairy.

  • Are you saying that an elf, a fairy, and a sidhe are essentially the same type of being/species ?
    – user1385
    Oct 31, 2017 at 6:37
  • You can't assume in such a way that words used in different languages and cultures express the same concept. There are ontological issues here.
    – user1618
    Apr 17, 2018 at 16:38
  • @TheEarth I’m talking about English language and culture, which has roots in Germanic and French languages. Modern English typically uses the two roots interchangeably, except that the French-rooted words typically have a higher register than the Germanic-rooted words, which we mostly perceive as more vulgar or folksy. For another example, French beef is a high-register word for meat whereas Germanic cow is a low-register word for a farm animal. In some cases, like weird, the Germanic roots have become archaic or obsolete. Apr 17, 2018 at 21:48
  • I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that comment though, so if you had some other criticism in mind, please elaborate. Apr 17, 2018 at 21:52
  • I was responding to your statement that "faerie is simply the French word for the concept, just as elf is the Germanic word and sidhe is the Gaelic word for it" although that can't have been what you had in mind when you said you were talking about English language and culture. Usage of each of those words developed within a culture and came with meanings that in some respects at least were specific to it. Moreover I think that accounts for some of the difference between the meanings of fairy (or faerie) and elf in English.
    – user1618
    Apr 17, 2018 at 23:08

Since this is more a philological question, I'm going with this somewhat different take on the matter from noted philologist J.R.R. Tolkien:

Fairy, as a noun more or less equivalent to elf, is a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period. The first quotation in the Oxford Dictionary (the only one before A.D. 1450) is significant. It is taken from the poet Gower: as he were a faerie. But this Gower did not say. He wrote as he were of faerie, "as if he were come from faerie".

The source for this is his noted essay "On Fairy Stories", pp 3 (PDF). (I have taken one liberty in transcribing it: the PDF to which I linked appears to have dropped the italics. Tolkien used italics heavily; my memory of first reading "On Fairy Stories" includes that customary italicization; so I have attempted to recreate it as best I can. If I got it wrong, that's on me.)

Anyway, it's bracing to hear a professional imply that the use of the term "fairies" stems mainly from a publisher's error. Tolkien certainly knew his field, and was probably familiar with the occasional accident in transcription carrying large linguistic consequences.

For what it's worth, Tolkien did not hesitate to place Feerie - the land, not the inhabitants - in its proper place in mythology & folklore. From the same essay, on page 4:

Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.

That rather magnificent bit of wordsmithing outlines the beginning's of Tolkien's theme for the essay. I won't issue spoilers, but this admittedly fairly long piece might be of considerable interest to mythology.SE.


The word 'Fairy' is most commonly used to describe a mystical entity that holds no true connection with our physical world. Because of this non-connection, the word "Fairy" has a neutral connotation and is used to describe the powerful forces of nature and the mystical entities that inhabit nature. It is likely that because old Pagan religions are deeply entangled with the forces of nature, the term "Fairy Tales" came naturally to describe stories of mystical encounters in the forests during that time. The modern interpretation of a "Fairy" has evolved to something that is still evolved with the forest but is far from what the original historical context suggested. Think... mysterious weather and swirling clouds (old pagan view of "fairies") vs.. Tinker Bell (modern interpretation of "fairies")

  • 2
    May I encourage you to cite reputable sources (e.g. not wikipedia)? Doing so makes it easy to know if your answer is right, and also provides starting points to users who would like to learn more about the topic.
    – user62
    May 28, 2015 at 15:04
  • i recently killed my computer with all my mythology books... i will add some references when i can take the time to dig through my collection and find the correct title. until then, i don't want to guess at which book i got the information from. Thank you Christofian :)
    – KingJames
    May 28, 2015 at 15:08
  • Well, this answer is about how the 'meaning' of fairy evolved over time, not how the word 'fairy' even appeared... But, if this answer is correct, then a likely path to the current usage of "Fairy", would be that "Fae" was first used to mean: "Natural Forces that control our Fate", which connects 'Natural Forces" and "Fate" (Fate 'cause the Latin parts of the etymology I posted in the OP), and then evolved from there to current "Fairy"... But, that's just speculation...
    – Malady
    May 28, 2015 at 18:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.