How supernatural, preternatural, or unearthly beings sweeten their coffee

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Spotted by Oliver Renwick's wife, while waiting for a train in Fes, Morocco:

Oliver's comment:

I don’t think I’ve heard the word ‘wight’ outside of Tolkien, and I don’t understand, even with a machine, how you could get ‘wight’ from ‘blanc’. The only conclusion I can come to is that we actually had a human translator who didn’t know how to spell ‘white’ and yet thought they were qualified to continue with a translation that now appears on who knows how many tens of thousands of sugar packets.

The OED gives Tolkien's usage as sense 1.b, "orig. and chiefly with (good or bad) epithet, applied to supernatural, preternatural, or unearthly beings", noting that it is "Obs. or rare arch." and was used "In the 17th c. esp. of the four beasts of the Apocalypse".  The other senses are not much more appropriate — e.g. "1.c. A local name for the shrew-mouse" (who knew?), or 2.a. "A human being, man or woman, person. Now arch. or dial. (often implying some contempt or commiseration)".

However, a bit of web search does turn up some precedents. For example, a document from the National Agricultural Policy Center of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform of the Syrian Arab Republic, "Agricultural Support Policies in EU for Selected Products", tells us that

The total sugar production quota for the EU-25 in 2004 is 17, 4 Million Ton of White Sugar Equivalent (WSE)1.

but then in the footnote adds that

Every 1 ton wight sugar equal 1,078 ton from raw sugar

As a rather poor speller myself, and a critic of the bizarre English spelling system, I sympathize. (But there's no politically realistic hope of reform, so please don't send me your carefully-argued proposals…)



51 Comments

  1. Carsten said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    German has Wicht, which is an old word for 'fellow', and which I assume to be cognate to 'wight', without checking a dictionary. The word is still found today in Bösewicht 'rogue', lit. 'evilwight'. Though Bösewicht also has either a tongue-in-cheek or old-ish ring to me.

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    To me, my family being from that neck of the woods, Wight Sugar implies sugar from the Isle of Wight.

  3. pj said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    @ Ray Girvan – yes, or one of the numerous garlic varieties grown there called xxx Wight (Lautrec Wight, Solent Wight, Chesnok Wight et al). Garlic-infused sugar, perhaps? Nice.

  4. Sili said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    As a rather poor speller myself, and a critic of the bizarre English spelling system, I sympathize. (But there's no politically realistic hope of reform, so please don't send me your carefully-argued proposals…)

    I won't. (I can't carefully argue anything.) But I think more blogs should be written with Shakespearean abandon.

  5. Yuval said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    "But there's no politically realistic hope of reform"
    You mean for the Syrian Arab Republic, right?

    [(myl) The outlook there is probably a bit more promising than for the English spelling system, alas.]

  6. Talysman said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    A quick test of the spell-checker in Firefox shows that if someone accidentally transposes the "H" and "I" and forgets the "E" ("wiht",) the spell-checker suggests "wight", among other choices, but not "white". So it's possible it was an honest typo turned cupertino…

  7. marie-lucie said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    "Wightman" is not unusual as an English surname. Would it mean "man from the Isle of Wight" or something else?

  8. Mike Eslea said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    I'm sure there's a wight in Thomas Hardy: "Yonder a maid and her wight come whispering by, war's annals will fade into night ere their story die"

  9. marie-lucie said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    a human translator who did not know how to spell "white"

    I live in Canada, where most products are labelled by law in both English and French. I think that many manufacturers who only need to translate (overwhelmingly from English to French) short texts that will appear on the label don't want to go to the trouble and expense of hiring a qualified translator and just rely on an employee who claims not to have totally forgotten their French lessons in high school. In the present case, the person who wrote "wight" might speak fluent English but be a poor speller. After all, "white" rhymes with "light, night, might, right, sight", so "wight" might seem to be a likely spelling: the "translator" might even know that "tonite" and "lite" are considered incorrect, so "wight" would be a safer bet.

  10. Yuval said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    To add to Marie-Lucie, there may also be a pinch of "I know there's an 'h' in there somewhere" added to the consideration stew.

  11. Frans said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

    @Carsten

    German has Wicht, which is an old word for 'fellow', and which I assume to be cognate to 'wight', without checking a dictionary. The word is still found today in Bösewicht 'rogue', lit. 'evilwight'. Though Bösewicht also has either a tongue-in-cheek or old-ish ring to me.

    Dutch also has the words booswicht (scoundrel/rogue/bad person) and plain wicht, albeit the latter only means silly/annoying (little) girl; quite a step down from an evil witch.

  12. Janice Byer said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

    "….production quota for the EU-25 in 2004 is 17, 4 Million Ton of White…"

    I understood, turns out incorrectly, "ton" to be the American spelling of an equivalent "tonne" in British English, leading me to speculate the word in a Syrian document about EU quotas, especially in conjunction with a European-style number "17, 4 Million", might be yet another translator error, albeit a minor one of spelling style.

    I apologize for sharing something others likely already know, but it fascinated me to learn just now what a range of measures the little but mighty word "ton" can convey:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ton

  13. Leslie Katz said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    Now that I know how Google Translate works: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/how-google-translate-works-2353594.html; I expect it to show "wight" in translations from Arabic to English, relying on the Syrian document.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    Yuval, good point!

  15. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

    _Wight_, originally 'person; creature; small creature' has cognates throughout Germanic. In English, it survives as the noun _whit_, as in "not a whit", meaning 'not (even) the smallest bit'.
    It also survives (from an etymological point of view) in unrecognizable form in _aught_, _naught_, and _not_ (originally a reduced form of _naught_ 'not a thing; nothing').

    I kind of like the idea of "wight sugar" as sugar for Tolkien-type creatures, though.

  16. Laura Brown said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

    Keats also used "wight" in one of his two versions of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci": "O what can ail thee, wretched wight/alone and palely loitering?". In my opinion, the other version, which uses "knight-at-arms," is much better.

  17. Uly said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

    Don't worry. We can always hope that when the aliens take over the world, they'll make it their priority to fix the messed up English spelling system. (Or, alternatively, they'll burn all the books. Which will SUCK, but that means that when we re-invent reading and writing a few generations later, after killing all the non-humans, we'll be able to start from scratch and get it right this time.)

  18. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

    @pj, Solent Wight, eh? Isn't Solent Green people?

  19. g said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

    Fnortner — no, Solent Green is peoyple.

    pj, are the earliest sprouts of those garlic varieties collectively known as Bud Wight?

  20. Ray Girvan said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    I have to confess that apart from the Isle of Wight, my first encounter with the word "wight" (= a person) wasn't in Tolkien, but in EE 'Doc' Smith's atrocious Masters of the Vortex.

    For his guardian against lighting had been a vortex-magnet at the moment when some luckless wight had tried to abate the nuisance of a 'loose' atomic vortex. That wight dies, of course- they almost always did-and the vortex, instead of being destroyed, was simply broken up into a number of widely-scattered new vortices.

    Although pulp authors of that time were keen on obscure vocabulary, I can't imagine what was going through Smith's mind to resurrect this archaic word in a hard-SF context.

  21. Allan L. said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:01 pm

    You'd see it differently if you'd had a bight.

  22. Eric P Smith said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    I can recommend Scottish phonology. Here, ‘wight’ is pronounced [wʌit] whereas ‘white’ is pronounced [ʍ ʌit], and no confusion is possible.

  23. Adrian said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

    Janice, you must be very young. I'm old enough to remember before we had tonnes. Then, when they came in, there was much discussion about how it should be pronounced: /tonn/ or /tunny/. In the end we just pronounced it the same as "ton", whether it was confusing or not.

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    This all leads me to wonder how I know the word "wight," if it's so uncommon. Certainly I've known it for a long time. I've tried reading Tolkien but never got very far with it, and didn't learn it from him. Possibly I learned it in childhood from a now obsolete translation of the Brothers Grimm or some similar book?

  25. Gail Stygall said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

    Borrowed perhaps from Tolkien, the Game of Thrones series is populated by wights who can only be killed with dragonglass or burning.

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 9:27 pm

    It seems to have been much more common in the 19th century. A little play with Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the weird phrase from the Smith extract above – "luckless wight" – to have been a bit of a cliché that peaked in the mid-1800s.

  27. Michael Briggs said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

    A U.S. ton weighs 2,000 pounds. The (former) Imperial ton weighed 2,240 pounds (and, given that Canada used to use ImperiaL and not U.S. gallons, I assume that's what a ton weighed in Canada. The metric tonne weight 1,000 kilograms.

    I was in the IoW recently. With my tongue in my cheek, I remember the extensive sugarbeet fields there.

  28. Michael Briggs said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    Disregard misspelling and failure to close parentheses in previous post. Sorry. Memo to self: proof before pressing submit button.

  29. Michael Briggs said,

    September 18, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

    "Wight" to me rings of Chaucer, not Tolkien:

    He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
    In al his lyf unto no maner wight.
    He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.

  30. Adam said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 4:37 am

    "But there's no politically realistic hope of reform"

    Some European languages have had successful spelling reforms in the 20th century, such as Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Greek (well, "demotic" was about more than just spelling). What makes spelling reform workable in some cases but not in others? Is the main obstacle just the fact that so many people in so many different countries use English, so agreement would be impossible?

  31. h. s. gudnason said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 5:35 am

    From Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida:

    Now, when a wight
    Sits up all night
    Ill-natur'd jokes devising,
    And all his wiles
    Are met with smiles
    It's hard, there's no disguising!

  32. Private Zydeco said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 5:38 am

    Enchanted, sugar……

  33. David Marjanović said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    German has, or had, Wicht "dwarf" and its diminutive Wichtel. Both strike me as literary/obsolete, and are probably not in anyone's active vocabulary anymore; I bet they occur in Grimm's fairytales, and comic-book villains (who always have a tendency to poetic expression) still use it to scoff at their enemies in contexts where puny would be used in English.

    And just like English not, German nicht "not" is from 13th-or-so century ne wi(c)ht "not [even a] dwarf", the extinct ne being the same as Chaucer's.

    I won't. (I can't carefully argue anything.) But I think more blogs should be written with Shakespearean abandon.

    All hail Comradde PhysioProffe.

    Some European languages have had successful spelling reforms in the 20th century, such as Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Greek (well, "demotic" was about more than just spelling). What makes spelling reform workable in some cases but not in others? Is the main obstacle just the fact that so many people in so many different countries use English, so agreement would be impossible?

    Perhaps a comparison with the German case can shed some light on this. German had a spelling reform that was implemented with a transition period from 1998 to 2005. First, German already had a centrally regulated spelling system since 1901, something English has never had. Second, it was a small reform that left most words unaffected. Third, it actually increased the (very small!) number of words that are spelled differently in Germany and Austria, though it decreased the differences of both to the Swiss spelling (which, famously, doesn't use the letter ß). Fourth, the diversity within Standard German is rather smaller than that within Standard English, though it is considerable, and it's still big enough that the spelling system fails to account for some of it.

    Popular support was weak, because the public was not involved in the long discussion of which proposals should be implemented; indeed, a few newspapers temporarily switched back to the old spelling rules halfway through the transition period.

  34. minus273 said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    The Dutch one must be more than just spelling, too. Even slightly older Dutch books are written with a full Germanic system of declension ('Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen', anyone?), yet no grammar of modern Dutch mention that elaborate system at its slightest.

  35. Mary Bull said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 9:00 am

    I remember clearly my first encounter with "wight," about 66 years ago, in the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats (already mentioned by Laura Brown in her comment). I read both versions in a one-semester course on English romantic poetry and was captivated by the haunting language. Keats's earlier version of the poem has "wretched wight" in the first line:
    http://www.everypoet.com/archive/poetry/John_Keats/keats_la_belle_dame_sans_merci.htm

  36. Stitch said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Maybe somebody saw the word "weight" on another package of sugar and didn't know what it meant?

  37. Keith said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    My bet, too, is that this is a spell-check fault. "White" has been misspelled as "wiht", and has been corrected to "wight".

    K.

  38. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    "Wight" is a standard monster in Dungeons and Dragons, a kind of revenant or evil corpse; a lot of us probably met it there.

  39. Svafa said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    @Mary Kuhner: And now I'm trying to think of how to work Wight Sugar into my next campaign… maybe as a clue in a murder mystery… hmm…

  40. Brett said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 8:33 pm

    @Mary Kuhner: I didn't realize this fact for a long time, but the original Dungeons & Dragons wight is one of the elements of the game that included a specific allusion to Tolkien. To whit, the D&D wight was (like Tolkien's barrow wight) was a dead body, possessed by a malevolent spirit that originated somewhere else entirely. I was unable to find any reference to the dangerous sorts of wights in folklore having this particular nature.

    Of course, what one really tends to remember about D&D wights is that they're the weakest undead capable of draining levels and are thus formidable opponents for low-level characters.

  41. EndlessWaves said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    Svafa: There's always the wizzard with poor language skills. Instead of ordering a barrow, white sugar for spell ingredients, he orders a barrow wight, sugar. Cue adventurers hunting down the sugar golem and the amusing discussion about what to do with it when they've subdued it.

    The wight is often depicted as a very lightly skinned creature. I don't remember how Tolkein describes them but Keats' is described as pale and the D&D versions are often depicted as white skinned so it seems possible that the translator is keen on fantasy and has assumed these white-skinned monsters are named after the colour.

  42. Ray Girvan said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    @EndlessWaves: The wight is often depicted as a very lightly skinned creature

    Unlike this luckless one, with the cringemaking historical punning caption.

  43. GAC said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 12:23 am

    Interestingly, both Tolkien and later George RR Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire, which was previously mentioned) applied "wight" specifically to a form of undead. Tolkien's were old corpses that rose from the grave, while Martin's are men killed by ice demons known as the Others. I didn't know that it could be applied to other supernatural, etc, beings — though I did know the meaning "a human being". (Tolkien actually mentions it.)

  44. Matt said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 3:57 am

    Tolkein's were specifically "barrow-wights", though, right? (Best read in Elmer Fudd voice.) That surely implies that there are non-barrow wights who, being unconnected with barrows, might well be non-undead.

  45. Rodger C said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    "St. Austin and St. Benedight,
    Save this house from wicked wight,
    From the devil and the goblin
    That is called Goodfellow Robin."

  46. Ray Girvan said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 7:07 pm

    @Matt: That surely implies that there are non-barrow wights

    Pardon the self-link, but see "Luckless wight". The phrase "barrow-wight" was lifted by Tolkien straight from the 1869 translation of the Saga of Grettir the Strong (in which Grettir goes treasure-hunting in a barrow, and runs into the occupant). The same translation uses "barrow-dweller" and "barrowbider", so clearly "barrow-wight" is not some specific entity, but just a variant term for "the guy they ran into in the barrow".

  47. Matt said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

    Ah, so "barrow-wight" is structurally more akin to "bunny-rabbit" than "rascally rabbit"? Fair enough.

  48. How supernatural, preternatural… | English Teaching Daily said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 3:58 am

    [...] I don’t think I’ve heard the word ‘wight’ outside of Tolkien, and I don’t understand, even with a machine, how you could get ‘wight’ from ‘blanc’. The only conclusion I can come to is that we actually had a human translator who didn’t know how to spell ‘white’ and yet thought they were qualified to continue with a translation that now appears on who knows how many tens of thousands of sugar packets. How supernatural, preternatural, or unearthly beings sweeten their coffee [...]

  49. Janice Byer said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

    "Janice, you must be very young."

    Adrian, I wish! Alas, it's merely true: Nobody knows you're an old dog on the internet, who's learned British spelling thanks to a Briton inventing the web that enables transatlantic access to British print media.

    Before the web, I may've heard "tonne" on the radio or telly, but as you enlightened me, it's pronunciation was settled in favor of its being a homonym for "ton", so I still needed a clue to know that and thank you for it.

  50. Rodger C said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 11:54 am

    @Ray Girvan: The original of "barrow-dweller" is "haugbúi." In northern England, I understand, a barrow-wight is called a "hogboy."

  51. Ray Girvan said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    @Rodger C: "haugbúi … hogboy

    Thanks! The variants were making me wonder if it was a kenning, but no: "haug" = mound, "búi" = dweller. A quick skim of sources puts it a bit further north than northern England: most of the book references I can find refer to Orkney, where you'd expect major Norse influence.

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