Fairy versus Faerie, and other names for the Fae

Fairies have a lot of names and there a lot of ways just to spell the word. When it comes down to Fairy versus Faerie, what is the difference? Fairy comes ultimately from the Latin fata, “the fates” – the group of Roman goddesses who decided the fate of mortals. The Roman goddesses multiplied in later folklore, and it is possible that it came to refer to magical ladies of all varieties, but especially the ones concerned with childbirth. Fata became fae/fay, and fay becomes faerie by addition of the suffix -erie, denoting a craft. In this context, the craft of enchantment.

Faerie became fairie, and we ended up with fairy. Historically, Faerie meant the “country or home of supernatural creatures”, or “something incredible or fictitious” such as enchantment; it wasn’t until the late 14th century that Fairy also came to mean the creatures themselves.

Some online resources claim that Faerie and Fairy have different origins (crediting Faerie to a Gaelic origin) but I have seen little evidence to support this, and plenty to discredit it.

Even today, there is very little consistency in spelling the word Fairy. Urban fantasy often uses quasi-archaic spellings like Fay, Fae and Faerie, especially to conjure images of Fae creatures of a more archaic and scary sort, while Fairy has come to mean the children’s creature or the romantic Victorian concept of the tiny winged Pixie.

A black and white illustration of a man being pulled from a dancing circle of small fairies.
Image: Plucked from the Fairy Circle, Wirt Sikes, 1880 from “British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions”

The reality is that both words have the same meaning, and are essentially interchangeable. But you can expect readers to draw slightly different mental images depending on which you use. In the battle of Fairy versus Faerie, the winner is whichever one you prefer to use.

The many regional dialects of the British Isles, Ireland and Brittany offer yet more historical spellings – some I have read about include Fary (Northumberland), Fane (Ayreshire, possibly a literary invention by J. Train), Fées (Brittany), Feriers, Frairie, Farisee, Pharisee and Ferisher (Suffolk), Ferries (Shetland and Orcadian) and Ferrishyn / Ferrish (Manx).

But what if you believe that naming the Fae is a bad idea? This is where the tradition of euphemistic names for the fairy arises. Whether it came from a belief that naming the Fae would invoke them, or the use of titles would placate them, many people have titles used for the Fae to avoid naming them directly.

On this theme, Briggs quotes Chambers, in Popular Rhymes of Scotland, with a poem written from the point of a view of a Fae informing humans what to call them.

Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf, | If you call me imp or elf

I rede ye look weel to yourself; | I counsel you, look well to yourself;

Gin ye ca’ me fairy, |  If you call me fairy

I’ll work ye muckle tarrie; |  I’ll work you great misery;

Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me; | If good neighbor you call me

Then guid neibour I will be; |  Then good neighbor I will be;

But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht; | But if you call me seelie wight*

I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht. | I’ll be your friend both day and night

* Seelie: blessed, lucky, fortunate Wight: living thing

Chambers, 1842, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, p. 324

I’ve tried to compile a list of euphemistic names for the Fae from sources. It is by no means exhaustive, but provides a fascinating example of names used for the Fae.

  • Fair Folk, The 
  • Forgetful People, The
  • Gentry, The
  • Golden folk, The – Used by Yeats, The Land of Heart’s Desire.
  • Good Folk, The
  • Good People, The
  • Grey Neighbours, The – A euphemistic name used in Shetland.
  • Heath People, The – Used by Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill
  • Hill Folk, The
  • Honest Folk, The 
  • Little Folk, The 
  • Little Men
  • Lordly Ones, The 
  • L’il Fellas – A Manx euphemism for Fae
  • Men of Peace, The 
  • Mob, The 
  • Mother’s Blessing, The (Bendith y Mamau) – A Welsh (Glamorganshire and Carmarthenshire) name for fairies.
  • Old People, The  – A Cornish name arising from a belief that the Fairy were the souls of pre-Christian people.
  • Old Things – Used by Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill
  • Other Crowd, The 
  • People of Peace, The 
  • People of the Hills, The 
  • Small People / Small Folk, The – A Cornish name, apparently arising from the belief that Fairies were once the size of humans, but were shrinking, and would one day become as small as ants. Killing an ant was therefore considered wrong, as one is killing a Fairy.
  • Strangers, The 
  • The Greencoaties – A Linconshire name – apparently a reference to the Green dress some Fairies were thought to wear.
  • Themselves, they, them, or Them that’s in it – A Manx euphemism.
  • Tiddy Ones, The 
  • Urchins – A name for a Hedgehog, applied to Fairies arising from the belief that fairies would take the form of hedgehogs. It later began to mean a troublesome boy.
  • Wee Folk, The

References

Briggs, Katharine. (1976). A dictionary of fairies. Penguin Books.

Simpson, E.B. Folk Lore in Lowland Scotland, cited in Briggs, Katharine (1976).

Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, cited in Briggs, Katharine (1976).

Daimler, M. (2017). What’s in a name? Imp, Elf, Fairy, Good Neighbor. https://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2017/05/whats-in-name-imp-elf-fairy-good.html

Kipling, R. (1906). Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Faulding, G.M. (1913). Fairies. https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fau/fau00.htm 

Boughton, R. (1919). Faery song, from the Immortal Hour.Etymonline.com. Fairy (n.). https://www.etymonline.com/word/fairy

Etymonline.com. Fairy (n.). https://www.etymonline.com/word/fairy

Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1911). Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. https://archive.org/details/fairyfaithincelt00evanrich

Featured image: The Court of Faerie, 1906, Thomas Maybank.

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