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D&D Word History--Dweomer

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The Spell that Wasn't: Dweomer

One of the most curious words in the entire corpus of Dungeons and Dragons books
is dweomer, which is defined in the 1st edition Advanced D&D Dungeon Master's
Guide (1979, p. 228) as follows: "From dweomercraeft, the art (craeft) of magic
(dweomer)" . Fair enough, but then whence dweomercraeft? Turns out it is a real,
if obscure, word used in Middle English (and presumably in Old English). (As a
side note, I find words that start with dw- to be very compelling. The only
common ones in English are dwarf, dwell, dwindle, and their derived forms, but
how do you like dwale?)

Dweomercraeft first shows up in Layamon's Brut, an epic history of England in
verse, a sort of ancestral text to the Arthurian legends, written about 1215
(over a century before Chaucer), which uses almost no Anglo-Norman (i.e. derived
from Norman French words). Layamon writes, "And Peluz hit wiste anan thurh his
dweomer-craeften". This doesn't help us much, but we also know of an Old English
word gedwimer meaning 'sorcery' and gedwimere meaning 'sorcerer, juggler'.
There is also a Middle English word dweomerlayk 'magic, practice of occult art,
jugglery', also used by Layamon, and used by some later Middle English authors
as 'demerlayk'. And so the OED, based on this evidence, defines dweomercraeft as
'jugglery, magic art'.

Nevertheless, dweomer is an entirely novel term, coined by decomposing and folk
etymologizing the compound dweomercraeft in a way that no earlier author had
done. Gygax has re-etymologized 'dweomer', as in D&D it always describes a spell
or an act of magic rather than sorcery in general. It's a very innovative
neologism, one with nearly 8,000 Google results, and has been used elsewhere in
print by fantasy authors such as Katherine Kerr, a gamer whose novels have been
strongly influenced by D&D. Despite its great antiquity, 'dweomer' is truly new
to English.

A possible origin: 'dweomerlayk' shows up as 'Dwimmerlaik' in Tolkien's Lord of
the Rings, as an epithet applied to the Witch-King of Angmar by Eowyn at the
Battle of the Pelennor Fields - you know, that whole 'I am no man' spiel.
Tolkien also refers to Dwimorberg, the Haunted Mountain, and Dwimordene, the
name given by the people of Rohan to Lorien. All of these 'dwimmers' and
'dwimors' mean 'haunted' in the Rohirric language, which is of course just Old
English (cf. Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, p. 101). There's no
specific evidence that this is the source of Gygax's dweomer (Tolkien certainly
never uses it in that spelling, or as a noun, or as a non-compounded word of any
sort), but it certainly could be, given the influence of Tolkien's oeuvre on the
concepts and settings of Dungeons and Dragons.

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  1. Adarkcloud's Avatar
    and i never really paid much attention to the lack of dw- words in our language.
    thanks for the info!