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11 Witches Who Don’t Fit the Halloween Stereotype

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Broom-toting and green-tinged, the Halloween witch is known for cackling, brewing potions, and casting mean-spirited spells on innocents. Or, in recent years, she’s often simply sexy. Here are 11 witches—and “witches”—throughout history who defy the Halloween stereotype.

1. THE WEIRD WITCHES

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“You should be women/ And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so,” says Banquo in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Three Witches, also known as the “Weird Sisters,” are some of the most mysterious characters in theater and literature. With their dark, tattered clothing and bubbling cauldron, the Three Witches fit the nightmare image of Europe’s (and, not much later, America’s) witch hysteria of the era. However, their gender-defying beards seemed to imbue them with an “otherness”—and possibly a power—that went beyond the popular understanding of a witch.

The Three Witches have served as muses for countless works of art, and modern productions of Macbeth have reinterpreted the witches as everything from army nurses to goth school girls to drugged-out hippies to sidewalk peddlers. J.K. Rowling even named a rock band that appears in her Harry Potter series “The Weird Sisters.” 

2. THE RICH WITCH

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Nicknamed the “Witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green became known for both her extreme frugality and her shrewd business sense during the Gilded Age. Though she was foulmouthed, smelly, and wore the same ragged black clothes day after day, Green was worth what would be billions today. She was the first woman to become a Wall Street magnate.

While other successful Wall Street investors lived in sprawling mansions, Green lived in cramped apartments in Brooklyn and Hoboken. She ate cheap meals of oatmeal warmed over the radiator and discounted pies. To save money on soap, she reportedly insisted that the launderer only clean the hems of her skirts. Many biographers believe that, in an attempt to save money on doctor’s bills, Green neglected an injury to her son Ned’s leg for so long that the limb had to be amputated, but according to Charles Slack’s 2005 Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon, the amputation wasn’t Green’s fault. Slack claims that Ned was “the principal love of her life.” According to biographer Janet Wallach, Green once pulled a gun on a businessman who threatened Ned. 

Green’s strict Quaker upbringing was believed to be the source of her thriftiness. It was also a source of her financial savvy. By the age of six, she was reading financial papers to her wealthy, ailing father and apparently learned quite a bit in the process. When she turned 21, Green began investing an inheritance and multiplied her fortune several times over until she died in 1916. She was often feared and disliked because of her eccentric ways and wasn’t trusted because she barely spent the fortune she amassed. “In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society’s,” Slack told the New York Times.

3. THE NOT-WICKED WITCH

In the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West is the very embodiment of the Halloween witch. Green skin? Check. Pointy hat? Check. Mean, petty, cackling and broomstick-riding? Check.

But the Wicked Witch is not the only witch in the movie. With her sparkling crown, voluminous gown and gentle demeanor, Glinda, otherwise known as the Good Witch, helps the courageous and mostly self-reliant Dorothy make her way through Oz, evade the Wicked Witch, and arrive safely back home with Toto in tow.

4. THE NAZI-FIGHTING WITCHES

When World War II began, the Soviet Union forbid women from enlisting in the military. But in 1941, Joseph Stalin created three female fighter pilot units at the urging of Marina Raskova, “the Soviet Amelia Earhart,” who agreed to train them. 

The women wore oversized, hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots, and their missions were dangerous and numerous. Mostly in their teens and early 20s, the female pilots had no guns, parachutes, radar or radios—only compasses and maps. All their missions took place at night, and their faces would often freeze in the breezy, wide-open cockpits. Their planes were flimsy plywood-and-canvas models that were typically used only for crop-dusting.

The whispery “whooshing” noises the planes made as they flew through the night reminded the Nazis of the sound of a broomstick, so they called the women “Nachthexen,” or “Night Witches.” The Nazis also started bizarre rumors about the female pilots. “The Germans spread stories that we were given special injections and pills which gave us a feline’s perfect vision at night,” Nadezhda Popova, one of the Russian pilots, told historian Albert Axell. “This was nonsense, of course. What we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”

Flying 30,000 missions over a span of four years, the Night Witches (the pilots adopted the name as a badge of honor) dropped 23,000 tons of bombs on the invading Nazis. 

5. THE DOMESTICATED WITCH

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In 1964, The Feminine Mystique was brand-new in paperback and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a prohibition on sex discrimination. That same year, Bewitched became a TV sensation. The show centered around Darrin Stephens, a successful Madison Avenue ad man, and his loving wife Samantha, a housewife who also happened to be an all-powerful witch. With a mere twitch of her nose, Samantha could easily, if she wanted, have complete power over her mere-mortal husband. (Imagine if Betty Draper had had that same power over Don. The Drapers are, after all, of the same era.) 

But despite pressure from her Darrin-disapproving mother to use her power liberally and Darrin’s requests that she curb it, Samantha always managed, by the end of each episode, to strike a fair, healthy balance between the two. 

6. THE CHART-TOPPING WITCH

After reading the novel Triad by Mary Leader in the mid-1970s, Stevie Nicks was inspired. The story centered on a woman who is possessed by an otherworldly entity named Rhiannon. Nicks decided to write a song based on the novel, titling it “Rhiannon,” and it became her first huge radio hit with her band Fleetwood Mac. On stage, Nicks often prefaced the performance by saying, “This is a song about an old Welsh witch.” She also took on an intense, witchy stage persona and began wearing all-black outfits.

It wasn’t until several years after the song became legendary that Nicks realized that her memory of the novel had been wrong: her muse wasn’t a witch at all, but a goddess. However, by that point, rumors had long been circulating that Nicks herself practiced witchcraft. “I stopped wearing black for about two years because I was freaked out that someone would come and kidnap me because I was a witch,” Nicks told CBS’s Rita Braver in 2007. “This was crazy because I am not. I like to think that I’m Glinda or something, but I am not a black magic witch.” 

A multitude of fans were apparently undaunted by the name’s witchy connotation. Rhiannon, which had been pretty much unheard of in the United States before the song, was a popular baby name throughout the remainder of the ‘70s. 

7. THE BANNED WITCHES

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The witches in Roald Dahl’s 1983 book The Witches are so hideously grotesque and diabolical (apparently way beyond the ugliness and nastiness of the typical Halloween witch) that the book eventually wound up on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books. Some libraries in England have banned it because of perceived misogyny.

However, Jemma Crew argues in the New Statesman that The Witches isn’t sexist because “the story rebels against the aesthetic rules imposed on women."

8. THE HONOR-STUDENT WITCH

Studious and slightly dorky, Sabrina the Teenage Witch used her powers to awkwardly navigate the hell that is adolescence. “Every teenage girl feels like a freak,” Nell Scovell, the TV show’s creator, told The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean at the height of the sitcom’s popularity in 1998. “Sabrina is a normal teenage girl who really is a freak.”

So, basically, Sabrina was just like the rest of us mortals in our teen years, except she commanded the attention of a massive TV audience.

9. THE KNOW-IT-ALL WITCH

When we first meet young Hermione Granger, Harry Potter’s sidekick comes across as a bit of an irritating know-it-all, but throughout the series, Hermione proves herself to be a fiercely loyal friend, a brave and whip-smart associate, and even a compassionate social activist, though still a know-it-all. She was voted the best film role model by children, according to The Telegraph.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has said that Hermione was modeled after herself as a child.

10. THE ROCKSTAR WITCH

For decades, Yoko Ono was accused of breaking up The Beatles. So when Ono released an album called Yes, I’m A Witch in 2007, it was hard not to think of it as a retort to all the haters. When Pitchfork asked her about the title of the album, Ono replied, “I'm a witch! Because I'm a witch! The thing is, when I wrote and produced that song in 1974, it was such an incredibly controversial song that everyone said, ‘Don't put it out.’ And it was shelved, you know. …I think that all women are witches, in the sense that a witch is a magical being. And a wizard, which is a male version of a witch, is kind of revered, and people respect wizards. But a witch, my god, we have to burn them.”

Last year, Paul McCartney finally set the record straight when he told David Frost of Al Jazeera English that Ono “certainly didn’t break the group up.” 

11. THE POLITICAL WITCH

In 2010, when tea partier Christine O’Donnell was running for Delaware’s Senate seat, Bill Maher released on “Real Time,” his new HBO show, a vintage clip of O’Donnell admitting that she had dabbled in witchcraft.

In a 1999 interview on Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect, O’Donnell told the comedian, "I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do." She went on to say that one of her first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar, which was smeared with a tiny bit of blood.

O’Donnell responded to the leak by issuing a TV ad in which she insisted, “I am not a witch. I’m not anything like you’ve heard. I’m you.”

Saturday Night Live did a parody, with Kristen Wiig as O’Donnell declaring, “I am you, and just like you, I have to constantly deny that I’m a witch. Isn’t that what the people of Delaware deserve? A candidate who promises first and foremost that she’s not a witch?” 

Last year, nearly two years after he leaked the witch tape, Maher apologized to O’Donnell in person on his show. “I gotta say, I don’t agree with your ideas, but it shouldn’t have hung on that stupid witch thing.”

This post originally appeared last year.

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12 Things Called ‘French’ In English and Whether They're Actually French
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Happy Bastille Day! To celebrate this French holiday, let’s take a look at some of the things we call "French" in English that may not be French at all.

1. FRENCH TOAST

They don’t eat French toast in France. There, it’s called pain perdu ("lost bread," because it’s what you do with stale bread) or pain doré (golden bread). In the 17th century French toast was a term used for any kind of bread soaked and then griddled: In a 1660 citation, it refers to bread soaked in wine with sugar and orange and then cooked.

2. FRENCH VANILLA

Vanilla is a bean from a tropical plant not grown in France, so what’s so French about French vanilla? French vanilla was originally not a term for a type of vanilla, but a type of vanilla ice cream, one made using a French technique with an eggy, custard base. It’s since detached from ice cream and become a flavor with a certain rich profile.

3. FRENCH DRESSING

Originally the phrase French dressing referred to the type of dressing people might actually eat in France: oil, vinegar, herbs, maybe a little mustard. But somehow during the early 20th century it came to be the name for a pinkish-red, ketchup-added version that’s totally American.

4. FRENCH PRESS

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In France, the French press coffeemaker, a pot for steeping coffee grounds with a plunger for filtering them out, is called a cafetière à piston or just a bodum after the most common brand. It may have been invented in France, but the first patent for one was taken out by an Italian in 1929. The style of coffee became popular in France in the 1950s, and was later referred to by American journalists as "French-press style coffee."

5. FRENCH KISS

The term French kiss, for kissing with tongue, came into English during World War I when soldiers brought the phrase—and perhaps the kissing style—back from the war with them. French had long been used as a common adjective for various naughty, sexually explicit things like French letters (condoms), French postcards (naked pictures), and French pox (VD). In French, to kiss with the tongue is rouler un patin, “roll a skate” (having to do with gliding?), but in Québec they do say frencher.

6. FRENCH HORN

In French, a French horn is a cor d’harmonie or just cor, a name given to the looping, tubed hunting horns that were made in France in the 17th century. French became to the way to distinguish it from other horn types, like the German or Viennese horn, which had different types of tubes and valves.

7. FRENCH FRIES

The phrase French fries evolved in North America at the end of the 19th century out of the longer “French fried potatoes.” The dish is said to be more properly Belgian than French, but it was introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson after he brought a recipe back from France. In French they are simply pommes frites, fried potatoes.

8. FRENCH MANICURE

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The French manicure, a pinkish, nude nail with a bright, whitened tip, was apparently invented in Hollywood in the 1970s. It began to be called a French manicure after the look made it to fashion runways. The style isn’t as popular in France, but women there do tend toward a groomed look with a natural color. In France, the term has been borrowed in from English: It's called la French manucure.

9. FRENCH BRAID

The term French braid (or French plait in British English) has been around since the 1870s, but the braid style itself, where hair is gathered gradually from the sides of the head over the course of braiding, has been around for thousands of years, according to archeological artifacts. It may have become associated with France simply for being seen as high fashion and French being equated with stylishness. In French, they also call this specific style of braid a French braid, or tresse française.

10. FRENCH TWIST

The vertically rolled and tucked French twist hairdo also came to be in the 19th century, and was also associated with French high fashion. In French it is called a chignon banane for its long, vertical shape.

11. FRENCH MAID

Housemaids in 19th-century France did wear black and white uniforms—though they were not quite as skimpy as the French maid costumes you see today. The French maid became a trope comic character in theater and opera, and the costume, along with other titillating characteristics, came to define what we now think of as the classic French maid.

12. FRENCH BREAD

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These days French bread has come to stand for any white bread with a vaguely baguette-like shape, whether or not it has a traditional, crusty exterior. It has been used as a term in English as far back as the 15th century to distinguish it from other, coarser types of bread.

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The Chemistry of Fireworks and Sparklers
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Independence Day is upon us, and that means grilling, s’mores, and plenty of good old-fashioned explosions. In other words: lots and lots of chemistry. For a breakdown of exactly how our favorite pyrotechnics work, check out the videos below from the American Chemical Society.

As a professor emeritus at Washington College, John Conkling may have one of the coolest jobs ever: experimenting with explosive chemicals and teaching his students to do the same. As Conkling explains in the video above, every explosion in a fireworks display is the result of two separate chemical reactions: one to launch the device into the air, and another that produces all those ooh- and ahh-inspiring sparkles.

The sparkles themselves are tiny flecks of metal, burning up in midair. Getting them to explode is easy, Conkling says. But getting them to explode blue? That’s a science

While sparklers may look like miniature, handheld fireworks, the mechanics are quite different. They do rely on fuel and oxidation like fireworks, but rather than just going off in midair, those reactions have to occur safely on a metal stick. Sparklers’ reactive chemicals are mixed with a binder that keeps the fire in place and slows it down, so you can enjoy your tiny explosions for just a little longer.

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