Witch’s Broom Spelling – AGAIN?!

By Ronald 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


Steven Swain

Hi Ron,
I offer this perspective: The broom is a type of thing used by a group of people, namely witches - unless you know the particular witch that is using that particular broom. Therefore, it should be witches', as the broom is specified as being used by this group. Oxford has it right.

Maxwell Cohn

interesting perspective, but somewhat misguided. In the context of dwarf conifers, a cultivar originating for a witch's broom comes from a single, quite specific broom, property of a single witch. In fact, as in the case of Norway spruce or mugo pine, 1000s of named cultivars have been selected from 1000s of distinct witch's brooms.

Ronald Elardo

When you look into the German word Hexen, you will find that it is a genetive, possessive form of Hexe. As a glued on prefix on Besen, it can only be translated as witch’s. If we want to express the plural in German, it would have to be Besen der Hexen=brooms of the witches. My training as a German linguist allows me to be an expert on the subject. Frauenkirche in Munich = church OF THE Blessed Virgin, our Lady’s Church. Please note the parallel. Thank you for your comment.