Words Mean Things: Fey, Faery, Fairy?
I’m currently working on a fantasy novel (coming this May). One of the main characters in the book is a faery. Within the book, these creatures are called the fey (both singular and plural). It’s their name for themselves and the name other people around them give them.
They’re also, occasionally, called faeries. There are many different spellings for these creatures. What’s the difference between all of them? Why would I choose “fey” over the others?
A What Now?
Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about. A fairy, faery, faerie, or fey is a mythological create that exists in European folklore. It’s particularly associated with the British Isles and Celtic cultures. Typically, these creatures are small, humanoid beings with wings. They’re often nature spirits, and they usually have magical powers.
These creatures are sometimes called “little folk” or the “fair folk. They’re closely related to pixies and other similar creatures. They can all be grouped under the umbrella term “fey creatures.”
Fairy is the most common English spelling, but faery and faerie are also accepted and attested historically. The words “fay” and “fey” are likely related to each other; “fay” is an adjective describing a creature, action, or place associated with fairies or being fairy-like. “Fey” is noun, which corresponds to the term “fay,” although the two can (and often are conflated).
The term “fairy” may seem like it’s related to the word “fair,” and the Irish term “the fair folk” would seem to make that connection explicit. Fairies are also known as “little people,” and there are many myths about a small or dwarf race of humans inhabiting the British Isles and then retreating inside barrows when the Celts and Britons, and later the Anglo-Saxons, took over. Some theorists suggest these could have been legends about the Picts, a group of people living in what is now Scotland. It’s theorized we get the word “pixie” from Picts, which would connect the Picts to fey creatures.
The word has nothing to do with “fair.” It comes down to us from Middle English, with the word “fairie” used to mean “fairyland” or “enchantment.” The word is a corruption of the French “faerie.” The word was introduced into the English language in the 1300s. At that time, the ruling classes in England spoke French, and there was actually raging debate about whether English people should speak English or French!
The French term was derived from the French “fee,” meaning fairy. French is a Romance language, meaning it derives from Latin. Latin was also still very common in Europe during the Middle Ages. The word has its roots in the name of the Roman goddess Fata, who ruled over fate. Her name derives from fatum, meaning fate.
So fairies have obviously always been connected to magic and the occult!
The French Fee
The modern French word for fairy is still fée or féerie; the adjective form is feerique.
But let’s look at fée. It’s actually very close to “fey,” much closer than it is to “fairie.” Faerie is an adjective in Medieval French and Middle English. If you look at how French forms adjectives, we can see faerie is just an adjective formation of the noun form.
When English adopted it, it was originally used as noun. Over time, however, it became the noun rather than an adjective. We still use “fairy” as an adjective, although we might be quick to use “fay” or “fairy-like.”
From all of this, we can see “fairy,” “fairie,” “faery,” and even “faerie” are correct terms. We may also see the French fee and connect it with the English fay or fey.
Now here’s a point of confusion: Is it fay or fey?
A vs. E
There are two ways to spell gray in English: grey and gray. The joke goes that the “gray” version is for Americans, while the “e” version is for the English, because that corresponds with the first letter in each nation’s name.
If only things were so easy with fay and fey.
Fay is another term for fairy. It can be used as an adjective or a noun, and it probably derives from the French fée.
Fey is another word entirely. It derives from a Middle English term meaning “fated to die.” It derives from the Old English faege, meaning doomed to die. It’s connected to a Proto Indo-European term meaning “ill” or “bad.”
Fey can also mean giving an impression of vague unworldliness or having supernatural powers.
And that’s where the conflation happens. These two terms sound exactly the same in speech, so you wouldn’t know if someone was describing something as “fey” or “fay” unless they spelled it out or wrote it down. And since they both indicate supernatural powers, the two terms have been increasingly melded together.
Blame Dungeons & Dragons
Perhaps the most popular use of the word “fey” as alternative to “fairy” or even “fay” is in the Dungeons and Dragons boardgame. Whether an intentional error or an accidental one, the gamemakers named their class of fairy-like creatures “fey” and not “fey.” As a result, the spelling “fey” has become more popular in fantasy circles. This understanding of the spelling is even becoming more mainstream among fairy enthusiasts and the general population. Check out the Urban Dictionary definition of the term.
While the error is understandable, it has changed the way we think of this term.
Why Use Fey?
There’s one huge problem with using the standard English spelling “fairy”: It’s also a slur against homosexual men. If you call a man a fairy, you’re implying he’s an effeminate bottom. Fairies are associated with some of the worst stereotypes of male homosexuality, so the term is considered particularly offensive. There have been some attempts to reclaim it in recent years, although it’s still considered a term of insult.
Faery is one way around this, but some people consider the terms themselves problematic. “Fey” is far enough removed from “fairy” that it eschews most of the negative connotations with the word. “Fairy” has taken on some fairly negative connotations, in addition to being a slur for homosexual men.
“Fey” loses all the connotations of “fairy,” including its association with homosexuality and femininity. It becomes more gender neutral.
Deciding on “Fey”
I was influenced by the usage of the term in Dungeons and Dragons and from talking with other friends who enjoy this genre of game, literature, and more. Some even consider themselves expert on fey and use the term themselves.
I also wanted to avoid “fairy,” since I’m ostensibly writing about what could be read as an mm or gay romance; the LGBTQ+ community no doubt would be able to tell the difference, but it doesn’t stop the inevitable connotation, questioning, or even conflation of the two terms within the text. Referring to Viridian repeatedly as a “fairy” could have unwanted impacts on the reader’s interpretation of the text.
Writers do have to be so conscientious when it comes to word selection. “Fey” also drops the gendered connotations, and since the fey in my book are a genderfluid society, it makes sense the words they’d use for themselves would be gender neutral and not carry connotations of femininity or masculinity.
I was even a little leery about picking the spelling “fairy” for the title, A Stranger Sort of Fairy Tale, because it could have negative connotations, since it’s essentially a queer fairy tale about fey. I couldn’t use “fey” in the title (what is a “fey tale”?). “Faery,” the other term employed in the text, might have worked, but I think “fairy tale” is the more widely recognized and accepted version of the term—which is going to pull the connotations I want.
Nonetheless, it was a conscious choice, and you could argue I made the wrong one. The term “fairy” isn’t used in the text, so why should it be in the title, particularly if the title can then carry negative connotations?
Thinking It Through
Nonetheless, these are the sorts of things I had to spend time thinking through. And I did think them through and come to a conclusion. Whether or not using “fey” is the right choice (or even correct, as per the original meaning of the word), it’s the choice I made.