Wicked Women & the Power of Words

Sati Benes Chock

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.” 
–William Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1606

 

 

Two of the most common insults in the English language are nearly identical, save a consonant—witch and bitch. Although their first meanings are different—a witch is a woman with magical powers, while a bitch is a female dog—their secondary meanings are stunningly alike; a witch is a woman who is ugly and unpleasant, while bitch is slang for a woman who is aggressive and strong.

This might seem inconsequential, but it isn’t. Words matter.

The word wicked has its origins in the old English term wicca, or witch. It was also used in Salem during the 1690s to denounce women.

It meant something “evil,” or “morally wrong.”

Wicked cool.

Wicked was reclaimed in contemporary New England as a positive term, meaning “very” or “really.”

Wicked amazing.

In 1995, Gregory Maguire reimagined the Wizard of Oz in a book called Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. Told from the perspective of the witches, it would later become a smash Broadway hit—one of the longest running shows that has grossed over $1 billion.

Wicked strong.

 

Independent women have always been attacked for their strength, and for daring to speak up for their rights. For asserting their agency.

 

 

Wicked scary.

One of my maternal ancestors, Martha Carrier, was hanged as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. Martha was one of the original 23 settlers of Andover, and the first accused in that town. Her neighbor—with whom she was having a land dispute—alleged that she was to blame for his mysterious illness.

And so it began.

Wicked sad.

Two of Martha’s children died of smallpox. After the rest of her family survived, they became outcasts and asked to leave Andover. Martha refused. According to legend, she was also an herbalist. She wanted to help people.

This would lead to her downfall.

 

Wicked brave.

When Martha was accused by the infamous Salem girls of being the “Queen of Hell,” and of leading 300 witches, she told them they were crazy. The result? Her children were imprisoned with her, where they were tortured, until blood ran from their noses, until they denounced their mother and admitted that she was a witch. This was meant to weaken her resolve.

But she refused to cave.

She stood up for what was right.

She believed in the truth.

Wicked naïve.

As Ernest Hemingway once said, “All truly wicked things start from innocence.”

Martha was a brave, independent woman in a time when that was not acceptable. Her refusal to believe that a bunch of spiteful, hallucinatory teenagers would win in a court of law sealed her fate.

 

Wicked ignorant.

The hysteria unleashed during the Salem trials was possible because of an environment in which the Puritans—an isolated, fanatical religious group that believed in demons and spirit possession—were allowed to mete out justice as they saw fit.

One way to prove that someone was a witch: if they could swim. Potential witches were tested by being thrown into a lake.

If they sank, they were innocent. If they floated, or swam, they were guilty of witchcraft.

Fake news, if you will.

Hundreds of years after the Salem trials, the world still discusses this tragedy that unfolded during a dark time of ignorance and hysteria. It remains a cautionary tale for what can happen when knowledge is scorned, and lies are accepted as truth.

Wicked important.

 

As a moody teenager, there were times when I called my mother a bitch—and/or witch—on a daily basis.

My mother, Marcia, is a powerful woman with a penchant for standing up for what is right and a passion for environmental preservation. She has engaged in disputes with multiple neighbors and is also a bit of an herbalist. It should come as no surprise that she identifies strongly with her distant relative, Martha.

It was sometimes difficult to be her child. Yet she is my hero, nonetheless.

Growing up in New England, I often used the word “wicked,” never considering its shady origins, its connections with hysteria, or to the debasement of women.

But recent political and social events have been a wake-up call. To the dangers of complacency, of not paying attention to what others say and do. Of remaining silent. Of emboldening bullies and racists. When fellow citizens are marginalized, the “other” is viewed as “wicked” not in the modern sense, but in the ancient, as “evil.” It is our duty to stand up for them. To ensure that atrocities such as the Salem Witch Craft Trials of 1692, or Nazi prisoner camps of the 1940s, never happen again.

I weigh words differently today. Because words matter.

And there is no rest for the wicked.

Wicked bitchin.

Both wicked and bitchin, as adjectives, are slang for “very cool.”

I’d like to also reclaim witch. To tweak that first meaning, to be a powerful, magical woman, like Hermione from Harry Potter, who makes the world better, and always looks out for others.

A good witch.

 

I’ve made sure that my daughter can swim.

I suspect Martha Carrier would approve.

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Born in Kathmandu, Sati Benes Chock grew up in New England and attended Wheaton College. She taught English in Tokyo before getting her MA in Japanese Literature from the University of Hawaii. Her short fiction has been published in a number of online and print publications, including Amsterdam Scriptum, Hawaii Pacific Review, Hiss Quarterly, Flash Me Magazine, Thereby Hangs a Tale, and Mouth Full of Bullets, as well as the anthologies After the Happily Ever After and Candlesticks and Daggers. She currently lives with her family in Honolulu, where she works at an art museum.