How did the word 'familier' (French) become associated with the concept of Magical Familiars, historically?

Or do we not know?

Proof for the concept being from French, first.

  • Can you show that it is in fact from the French, and not from the English word, as in e.g. "familiar spirit"?
    – jamesqf
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:11
  • bordering on mythology, not history Jul 22, 2015 at 18:27
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    @jamesqf - How about this?: scifi.stackexchange.com/a/95664/42059
    – Malady
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:38
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    More of an etymological question than either mythology or history, but I feel it's ambiguous enough to fit on both stacks.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 22, 2015 at 18:52
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    Interesting question. I know that in modern french, familiars in the magical sense is not translated as un (a) familier, instead they use compagnon (companion). This question is even more interesting because they do use familier to mean a pet, so that link with the translation must of happened before the modern change? or did they translate it to pet? so many good questions.
    – Alexandre
    Jul 22, 2015 at 22:48

1 Answer 1


The OED attests several use of the word familiar in Chaucer's works from the 1380's, in the usual sense of "pertaining to personal relations or family."

However the earliest use attested to in the OED in the sense of a familiar spirit is from 1584: R SCOTT, Discovering Witchcraft, III. xv. 65

A flie, otherwise called a divell or familiar

There is also an attestation of familiar angel, in our modern sense of guardian angel, dating to 1460.

From this, it seems clear that the word familiar entered the English language in its usual sense 100 to 200 years before it gained the additional sense being referred to by OP. Thus it is likely a derivation from the prior English, not the original Old French root.

Update: re flie in the quote above.

The same quote is referenced by the OED in sense 5 of the meaning of the word *fly", with flie as an obsolete spelling of the word:

A familiar, from the notion that a devil was accustomed to appear in the form of a fly

  • What's a "flie"? I get "divell" = "devil"...
    – Malady
    Jul 23, 2015 at 12:19
  • @Malandy: I'm not an expert in Middle English - that's how it is spelled in my copy of the OED. I'm guessing that it is pronounced the same as either the modern word "fly" or "flea". but neither makes sense to me. Jul 23, 2015 at 22:26
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    @Malandy: See my update (When in doubt, check the OED again!). It means "fly" as I suspected. Jul 23, 2015 at 22:35
  • Geerkins - I guess the idea of demonic flies are related to Beelzebub, Lord of Flies, somehow? [Random thought...]
    – Malady
    Jul 23, 2015 at 22:45
  • So, I guess the logical leap from "something personal" to "servant spirit (in the form of an animal)", would be something like this? : Animals that hang around 'witches' -> evil spirits, and then 'familiars' when assuming that 'familiars' are bonded to witches, and then the sharing senses powers add itself to the definition or something...
    – Malady
    Jul 23, 2015 at 23:41

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