Etymology

According to Thomas Keightley, the word "fairy" derives from the Latin fata, and is from the Old French form faerie, describing "enchantment". Other forms are the Italian fata, and the Provençal "fada". In old French romance, "fee" was a woman skilled in magic, and who knew the power and virtue of words, of stones, and of herbs.

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Faie became Modern English fay. Faierie became fairy, but with that spelling now almost exclusively referring to one of the legendary people, with the same meaning as fay. The word "fairy" was used to represent an illusion, or enchantment; the land of the Faes; collectively the inhabitants thereof; or an individual such as a fairy knight.

To the word faie was added the suffix -erie (Modern English -(e)ry), used to express either a place where something is found (fishery, nunnery) or a trade or typical activity engaged in (cookery, thievery). In later usage it generally applied to any kind of quality or activity associated with a particular type of person, as in English knavery, roguery, wizardry. In the sense "land where fairies dwell", the distinctive and archaic spellings Faery and Faerie are often used.

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The latinate fay is not to be confused with the unrelated (Germanic) fey, meaning "fated to die".

Various folkloristic traditions refer to them euphemistically, by names such as wee folk, good folk, people of peace, fair folk (Welsh tylwyth teg), etc

Description

Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers. Diminutive fairies of one kind or another have been recorded for centuries, but occur alongside the human-sized beings; these have been depicted as ranging in size from very tiny up to the size of a human child. Even with these small fairies, however, their small size may be magically assumed rather than constant. Some fairies though normally quite small were able to dilate their figures to imitate humans.On Orkney they were described as short in stature, dressed in dark grey, and sometimes seen in armour.

Wings, while common in Victorian and later artwork of fairies, are very rare in the folklore; even very small fairies flew with magic, sometimes flying on ragwort stems or the backs of birds. Nowadays, fairies are often depicted with ordinary insect wings or butterfly wings. In some folklore, fairies have green eyes. Some depictions of fairies either have them wearing some sort of footwear and other depictions of fairies are always barefoot.

Origin

The early modern fairies do not have any single origin, representing a conflation of disparate elements of folk belief, influenced by literature and speculation. Their origins are less clear in the folklore, being variously dead, or some form of demon, or a species completely independent of humans or angels. The folkloristic or mythological elements combine Celtic, Germanic and Greco-Roman elements. Folklorists have suggested that their actual origin lies in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of Christianity. These explanations are not necessarily incompatible, and they may be traceable to multiple sources.

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