Picture a supernatural being of diminutive human form and possessing magical powers. What do you call this magical personage? A fairy? Or perhaps you favor faerie? What about fay or fey?
Each of these words has a slightly different history, with different connotations in fantasy now. We'll start with the basic fairy.
fairy - This word entered modern English around 1250-1300 from Middle English faierie, (They sure didn't stint on vowels, did they?) which was borrowed from Old French, and which ultimately derived from Latin Fata, fate. Its first usage, now obsolete, was "enchantment," as in "Don't believe your eyes; all that you see is fairy." The next twist to the meaning, now archaic, was "the realm of magic and magical beings, fairyland." And finally the word came to mean the little people themselves, which is how it's used now.
How little are the Little People really? That has varied widely from legend to legend and throughout history. Sometimes the fairies are tiny, sometimes taller than humans, sometimes so insubstantial or illusory that their size is mere appearance without reality. But generally speaking, I think fairies tend to be small, while faeries are more human-sized.
faerie, faery - The primary definition of these variants is given as "fairyland," and the second usage is as an adjective describing the magical land or its denizens. "A supernatural being" is a more minor definition. We have Edmund Spenser to thank for this spelling being in use at all. While spelling variations certainly occurred throughout the early history of the word, it was Spenser who deliberately chose these spellings in the late 1500's for The Faerie Queene, his masterpiece of shameless flattery for Queen Elizabeth I. The faeries in Spenser's poem have little to do with the fairies of folklore, and his use of the alternate spelling has left a legacy of different connotations for the different spellings. I think of fairies as being diminutive sprites, wilder, more mischievous, probably cuter… While faeries are more noble and courtly, but possibly also more powerful and dangerous. However, I also tend to see this spelling as rather pretentious and faux Ye Olde - which, perhaps ironically, may have been exactly how Spenser intended it when he chose it back in 1580.
fay - Again, this word was originally an adjective and is only recently shifting to include a noun definition. It appeared in English around 1350 - 1400 from Middle French feie or fee, but ultimately from the same Latin root for fate, as in a spirit in control of the future, and hence any sort of magical spirit. I think of a fay fairy or fairyland as being particularly wild and unpredictable.
fey - Defined as "whimsical, strange, supernatural, enchanted," I assumed this word was just another one of the spelling variations in the family. Surprise! It's a much older word, and from a completely different root. Fey was in English before 900, deriving from Old English faege, meaning "doomed to die." The ultimate derivation of the word is unclear, but its development seems to have moved from weakness and timidity through visions and premonitions, to suffering from enchantment, to a sort of etherial insanity. When used for the people of Faerie, however, I think fey retains its connotations of strangeness, otherness, and danger.
Which spellings do you prefer? What different connotations do the different variants evoke for you?
[Pictures: "Mama slipped a berry under each fairy," colored pencil by AEGN, illustration from Kate and Sam to the Rescue, 2008;
The Fairies' Home, lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1868, from the Library of Congress Digital Collection.]