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The Free Dictionary defines wizardry as

  1. The art, skill, or practice of a wizard; sorcery.

The first part certainly sounds positive, but then the word sorcery is cited as a synonym. This word has the definition

Use of supernatural power over others through the assistance of spirits; witchcraft.

Ouch!

Further, definition 2 of "wizardry" also sounds positive and exactly in line with what I'd like to express:

2.

a. A power or effect that appears magical by its capacity to transform: computer wizardry.

b. Great ability or adroitness in a pursuit: a pianist gifted with technical wizardry.

The word "sorcery" really seems like the odd man out in the context of a definition of "wizardry". So can the latter safely be used as a compliment?

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I think you will be OK to use it as a compliment, it's been a while since being accused of wizardry could lead to a hot poker up the bottom or being burned at the stake. –  Frank Apr 23 at 10:42
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I take it as a pejorative. 'Sorcerer' is definitely a compliment since it is reserved for the most powerful. All that Harry Potter crap really distorted a lot of things for the sake of the story. –  Mitch Apr 23 at 12:03
    
The D.C. NBA franchise is called the Washington Wizards. I think it's safe to say that it's meant in a positive way. –  Robusto Apr 23 at 12:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The literal meaning of wizardry is exactly that of your first definition: the name for the practice of wizards. Yet when applied in a metaphorical or illustrative way, the term 'wizardry', by itself, has no negative connotation. For that matter, as we're no longer given to the practice of setting fire to people, nor does 'sorcery'.

In fact both can be used to convey, quite neatly and playfully, a kind of baffled awe. For example, an article from The Economist remarked that 'MARIO DRAGHI seems more sorcerer than central banker', using the theme of magic and sorcery to illustrate the effect of his pronouncement of the Outright Monetary Transactions initiative, with such allusions as 'Who would bet against a central bank that can conjure money from thin air?' and 'Mr Draghi’s magic is powerful, but it won’t work without help from the politicians'. 'The ECB's bond-buying plan: casting a spell', The Economist.

In the article, the author describes how the yields on bonds issued by enfeebled Euro-zone economies tumbled after Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, literally stated that he would do 'whatever it takes' to save the Euro. Yet he didn't need to actually do anything beyond announce the fact: as if by magic, the panic of investors abated at the spell of his reassurances.

A Google search for your example of 'computer wizardry' reveals a number of companies who use the phrase 'wizardry' in either their names or tag-lines. I only checked the first page of results, but not one of those firms admitted to resorting to witchcraft and sacrifice in order to get great results.

A further anecdotal example would be when, late last year, some delivery men were able to fit my new and large sofa through a my old and small door, showing outright contempt for the laws of physics in doing so. I remarked that they were 'wizards' or 'magicians' (I don't remember 'witch' of the two (HA!)) and said I'd like to buy them each a pint. Rather than initiating slander charges, they accepted the tip I offered them in lieu of an actual beer and went merrily on their way.

'Wizardry' is a fun and descriptive word, and is a wonderful compliment to pay to somebody. If you were actually able to find somebody who took offence to its connections to witchcraft, I would advise you that this is a dangerous person and is not your friend.

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Let me delve into realm of Role-Playing manuals and scripture, departing from dry dictionary definitions.

A Wizard is a learned practitioner of magic, following study of arcane sciences and lengthy schooling in performing magic rituals, summoning magic to .

A Sorcerer is a person gifted with magical power flowing from within. They may still need to learn how to control and shape their magic, but they don't need to study methods of summoning it to their bidding, more concerned with their wild magic not causing them harm as it manifests all by itself, for example coaxed by anger.

A Witch is largely similar to a sorcerer, though learned to apply inherent magic in creation of magical tools or mixtures, often (at least allegedly) for nefarious purposes.

These are the definitions of the practitioners of the different schools of magic and the metaphorical use follows them.

If you perform something that shows your expertise and power, laymen may call it wizardry in appreciation.

If effects of your actions are counter-intuitive, don't appear to follow logic, you may hear "What kind of sorcery is it?"

Witchcraft is usually connected with evil actions, following bad reputation given to witches by the church, and as such describing some person's actions as "witchcraft" is usually derogatory on top of "mysterious".

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You might want to specify that some of these definitions are specific to Dungeons and Dragons, and don't necessarily hold true in other role-playing games. –  user867 Apr 24 at 2:51
    
@user867: They follow the general lore of most fantasy settings, which is mostly compliant with D&D lore and likely originating from original meanings assigned to these. –  SF. Apr 24 at 8:04

"Wiz," "whiz," and "whizz" are all shorter forms of "wizard."

In light of what those alterations mean, i.e. one who has a remarkable skill in something, "wizardry" indeed can safely be used as a compliment.

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Wiz and whiz usually mean wizardry, but with two Zs I suspect they more often mean urination. –  Bradd Szonye Apr 23 at 19:25

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