Why Do We Pronounce the ‘-ed’ in ‘Wicked’?

Neal Whitman, Writing for
6-minute read

Now here’s a surprise: Some of our unusual adjectives weren’t created this way. One of them is wicked. You might wonder if the word has anything to do with the noun wick, the thing that you burn in a candle or an oil lamp. Actually, no. You can put the –ed suffix on wick, and talk about a /wɪkt/ candle or /wɪkt/ lamp, but in those cases, the word has just one syllable, as you’d expect. According to the OED, the source for wicked is the Old English noun wicca, meaning “wizard.” The feminine form of this word is the source of our word witch. This noun wicca had an adjective form, wick, which picked up an –ed suffix for no apparent reason. So etymologically, a wicked witch is nothing more than a witch-like witch. Objections over how this meaning of wicked evolved to mean “evil” are well-founded, but that’s a bigger topic than we can get into here. 

Etymologically, a wicked witch is nothing more than a witch-like witch.

Another example of –ed turning an adjective into a longer adjective is wretched. It comes from an Old English word that’s pronounced basically the same way as the noun wretch is today, except that the w wasn’t silent in Old English. As a noun in Old English, a wretch was an exile, or someone banished from their homeland. As an adjective wretch, it meant what wretched means today, but only gained the superfluous suffix sometime around the year 1200.

An interesting side note is that one of the various spellings of wretched before it settled into its standard spelling was R-A-T-C-H-I-T, a spelling that has been resurrected in present-day African American English as an insult. It’s also spelled R-A-T-C-H-E-T. 

So we’ve talked about the suffix –ed attaching to verbs and nouns to produce adjectives, and in odd cases, attaching to other adjectives to produce adjectives. But naked is the strangest case yet, because its –ed ending isn’t a suffix! In Old English, it was nacod, spelled N-A-C-O-D. It wasn’t derived from an existing noun or verb, or even an existing adjective. It was just an indivisible word that meant not having any clothes on. The OED does ultimately trace the word back to a past participial form of a verb, but by the time we get back that far, we’re not talking Old English anymore, or even proto-Germanic; we’re talking Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of hundreds of languages of the Old World. 

In her book English Words: A Linguistic Introduction (2006), Heidi Harley summarizes the situation with these adjectives by noting that the pronunciation of –ed as its own syllable “was often preserved in words that were common in idioms, poems, or ritual speech, where language learners were more likely to repeat the string exactly as they heard their elders say it” (p. 156). In the end, probably the most accurate thing we can say about these words is that they escaped by historical accident the pronunciation changes that affected other words, but like other irregularities in language, the less they’re used, the more likely they are to fall to regularity.

That segment was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com


About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can search for him by name on Facebook, or find him on Twitter as @literalminded and on his blog at literalminded.wordpress.com.