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I was recently reading about the etymology of the word "wraith". Its first recorded appearance is in a Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid and the word appears twice.

"The wraithis walkis of goistis that ar ded"

"Thyther went this wrath or schaddo of Ene"

The derivation of the word is uncertain. Some linguists believe it is related to the Old English "writhan": to writhe, or twist up.

Anyway, that's lost to time and is not what interests me. The author asserts that the two quotes are contradictory. In the first, the wraith the ghost of a dead person. In the second the character Aeneas, who is very much alive, is described as being shadow-like in the underworld.

Based on these quotes from the Aeneid, dictionary definitions have assigned multiple meanings to the word. Here's the example from the top of the Google search.

  • a ghost or ghostlike image of someone, especially one seen shortly before or after their death.

  • used in reference to a pale, thin, or insubstantial person or thing.

  • a wisp or faint trace of something.

Others have made the contradiction explicit, an earlier version of the OED actually using the word "living" in defining the second meaning of the word.

My question is this: when I read the two quotes from Scots, it seems easy to reconcile the difference. To do so, one merely uses the second definition: something pale or insubstantial. The word then makes sense when used for living things or dead.

How, then did the word come to be so closely associated with ghosts, to the point where dictionary compilers felt the need to make it the top definition? Is this down to Tolkien? While tempting, I suspect the "earlier" OED definition predates Lord of the Rings, although I cannot prove it.

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    It is always a matter of speculation with terms with an unclear origin. Wraith: 1510s, "ghost," Scottish, of uncertain origin. Weekley and Century Dictionary suggest Old Norse vorðr "guardian" in the sense of "guardian angel." Klein points to Gaelic and Irish arrach "specter, apparition." etymonline.com/index.php?term=wraith – user66974 Apr 5 '17 at 9:22
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My question is this: when I read the two quotes from Scots, it seems easy to reconcile the difference. To do so, one merely uses the second definition: something pale or insubstantial. The word then makes sense when used for living things or dead.

That doesn't make much sense at all. Aeneas is in the land of the dead. He is, til he heads through those gates of ivory, just as dead and wraithy as the wraithiest wraith. We have the idea that we're watching tourists to the land of the dead, but the ancients understood these stories as actual death and resurrection. Hades wasn't for poking around and writing postcards. That's why the heroes always have to earn or force their way out of these situations.

The primary sense always seems to have been ghost and "pale or insubstantial thing" is just a poetic or metaphoric expansion of the image. The OED doesn't even give the second as a sense of the word, offering only "3. An appearance or configuration suggestive of a wraith or spectre".

  • It's my guess that the OP is one of these people who dislikes any reference to the mystical or fantastical - even to the extent of hoping for the minimum references to such things.. expunging them wherever possible. – Tom22 Apr 5 '17 at 18:22

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