Witch’s Broom Spelling – AGAIN?!

By Ron Elardo in Brooming and Conifer Experiences
Jӧrg Kohout holding an Abies sibirica witch’s broom in the Altai Mountain Range, Kazakhstan
Jӧrg Kohout holding an Abies sibirica witch’s broom in the Altai Mountain Range, Kazakhstan

The origin of the English phrase “witch’s broom” is the German Hexenbesen, which means “the broom of a/the witch”.

Wikipedia defines "Hexenbesen" as the “broom of a witch”. Ergo: "Hexenbesen" is the transport vehicle of a witch, in other words, a witch's broom. Besen is the German word for “broom”. But more importantly---

There have been several permutations of the translation of Hexenbesen. I have seen “witches’ broom”, which means the broom of [many] witches; “witches’-broom”, which is the most peculiar, manufactured compound noun in the English language because it combines the genitive plural of witch (witches’), a hyphen and then the word “broom”. Admittedly, “witches’-broom” is listed in Webster’s and witches’ broom (a besom) in The Oxford Dictionary of the English Languages. But, it is nonsense, and both are wrong.

In A Grammar of the English Language by George O. Curme (Vol. II: Syntax), pp. 74 – 75, Old English (OE) had “several simple genitive forms: … -es, -e, and –an.” In Middle English (ME), only the -‘s ending remained. It’s called levelling out. That happens when one form of a word predominates. Levelling out occurs because of confusion, e.g. the difference between “lie” and “lay”, “sit” and “set”. In our case, “witches” in OE, turned into ME “witch’s” and was also substituted by “of a/the witch”. That “witch’s” remained into New English (NE).

Thus, “witches’ broom” or “witches’-broom” are NOT the correct translation of Hexenbesen.

As a German language expert, I would like to set the record straight. Be accurate and spell the dense clump of branches on any tree or shrub as a: witch’s broom, plural --- witch’s brooms.

Ronald J. Elardo, Ph.D., M. A., B. A.

B.A. in German, State University of New York at Buffalo
Junior Year, Ruprecht-Karls-Universitӓt Heidelberg, Germany
M.A. in German, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana
Ph.D. in Germanic Languages and Literatures, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Visiting Professor, Humboldt Universitӓt zu Berlin, Deutsche Demokratische Republik
Post-doctoral Seminars at the Jung Institut, die Schweiz