Thanks to Writing Consultant Jennifer Cottle for this word, one she nominated while a student in my Eng. 215 class as we read the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The Providence fantasist used it a great deal, usually when describing old books of magic as “eldritch tomes” or things associated with the supernatural, as in “The Dunwich Horror,” where “the mountainous blasphemy lumbered upon its eldritch course.” Incidentally, if you think Lovecraft overused one of his favorite adjectives, it only appears once in that tale, as well as once in another personal favorite, “The Haunter of the Dark,” where I had been sure he used it on every other page.
While casting about for more examples, I recalled that the author referred to eldritch landscapes as well as objects or monsters. Over the years I had come to think of eldritch things as being ancient.
My Lovecraftian-looking Webster’s New Collegiate notes a Scottish origin and a definition of “eerie,” whereas my more recent American Heritage Dictionary notes “perhaps” a Middle English word “elriche” as an ancestor. That dictionary adds the notion of “unearthly” to our Word of the Week.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not solve the riddle of the term’s etymology, as it lists both “elriche” and “eldritch” in 16th century usages, both with the sense of things “not of this earth.” If the two words are merely variants of the same term, “eldritch” carried the day. It also came to be used in describing strange places.
By the 19th Century, American realist William Dean Howells writes of a “Joy that had something eldritch and unearthly in it. Redundant? Howells apparently saw some distinction between something unearthly and the truly “eldritch,” and I find his association with joy original and appealing. What I do not see, in any usage, is the sense of something old, as when Lovecraft describes moldering books or mossy ruins of another time.
So like the term itself, there’s mystery in the exact meaning of “eldritch.” It’s a lovely word that trips off the tongue. I guess players of D&D and readers of fantasy novels have kept it alive for us.
We can also tip our space-helmets to Elon Musk. This week’s launch of the “Starman” manikin, seated behind the wheel of a cherry-red roadster, had me mesmerized. It looked literally unearthly, as it embarked on an endless trip around the sun. We can call this high-technology moment, eerie in its cosmic loneliness, an eldritch event.
Nominate a word by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.
See all of our Words of the Week here.