Come on in… sit a spell.

The history of the English word “spell” is long and interesting. It has two main uses in modern English. As a verb, it means “to name or write the letters of a word in order,” and as a noun, it means “a charm or incantation.” The roots of these two meanings of the word are different.

“Spell” as a verb, means to write or say a word’s letters in order. This use of the word comes from the Old English “spellian,” which means “to tell, speak.” Around the end of the 14th century, the word’s meaning changed to what it means today. This may be because in the Middle Ages, people usually read out loud, and saying the words was thought to be the same as “telling” or “speaking” them.

“Spell” as a noun, meaning a charm or incantation, has a different root. It also comes from Old English, but it comes from a different word, “spell,” which meant “story or message.” By the early 14th century, it had come to mean a magic spell or charm. This was possibly because the folklore of the time linked stories and messages to magic and foretelling the future.

The Runes

Runes are the letters in a set of alphabets called the “runic alphabets.” The Germanic peoples used these alphabets before they switched to the Latin alphabet. Around 150 AD, the first runes were written down. Different Germanic languages in Northern Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Iceland all used runic alphabets.

Runes were not just a way to write; they were also often used for magic or to find out about the future. This is where the idea of a “spell” comes in. In the Elder Futhark, each rune had a name that was a common noun or an idea, like “fehu” for cattle/wealth. People thought that the runes were the essence of the things they were named after.

Runes could be used to cast spells in a magical setting. They could be written on amulets or other items to give them special powers, or they could be used in spells. Some evidence also shows that the act of writing was seen as magical and powerful in and of itself. So, in this way, to “spell” a word—that is, to write it out using runes—could be seen as a magical act.

Rune Magic

“Galdr” is an Old Norse term for a type of magic that was closely associated with the runes. It comes from a verb, “gala,” which means “to crow” or “to sing.” Galdr is often translated as “incantation” or “spell,” and it refers to a kind of verbal or sung magic.

Galdr magic is often mentioned in the context of “seiðr,” another Old Norse term for a type of sorcery or witchcraft. While seiðr is often associated with more manipulative or coercive magic, galdr is more closely associated with knowledge and wisdom, particularly the wisdom of the runes.

In the mythological poetry of the Poetic Edda, the god Odin is often associated with galdr. Odin is said to have sacrificed himself to himself by hanging from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine nights to gain the knowledge of the runes, and with them, the power to work galdr magic.

In practice, a galdr might involve the carving or painting of specific runes, along with the chanting or singing of a verse or incantation. The galdr would be used to invoke the power or essence that the runes represented. This could be used for a variety of purposes, such as healing, protection, or gaining knowledge.

1 + 1 = cool

When a person has a fairly extensive knowledge of both programming and the pre-Christian history of Germanic-speaking folk, equating programming to the concepts stated above is a no-brainer. The same word that we use to mean “to write or say a word’s letters in order” is the word for making magic. Before people were routinely writing, they used runes, which were said to have been won through great pain by their chief god, Odin. His personal sacrifice was “to gain the knowledge of the runes, and with them, the power to work galdr magic.”

Few things seem more magical to me than stringing a few special words together, in just the right sequence, and seeing something happen as a result. To open an IDE (integrated development environment) and see nothing but a blank screen… and to then write words and see something come into being, ex nihilo, is an amazing feeling.


P.S. The use of the word “spell” as a period of time (e.g., “a spell of good weather”) comes from the Old English word “spell,” which meant “substitute” or “shift” (as in changing work shifts) and got its modern meaning in the early 1300s.

And that’s why we southern folk say things like “come on in; sit a spell.”



I think coding is amazing. I like thinking about how the ideas of magic(k) are made manifest by our use of technology, and how we can approach technology in ways that make it feel as magical as it is.

Table of Contents

"The word 'spell' has two distinct meanings: as a verb it identifies the letters of a word, and as a noun it refers to a magical charm or incantation. Its roots trace back to Old English runic alphabets, used in spells to invoke knowledge and protection. Through coding, we can recreate this ancient magic, manipulating mere words to create something out of nothing."

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