Of all that was written about ancient Britain the Druids have captured the attention like no other. Unfortunately, the result is that much that has been written about them, both ancient and modern, does not stand up to scrutiny. So, for example, if you read any of the numerous websites or books that discuss druids, you will read that the Druids were "Celtic" and most will state quite unequivocally that "druid" is a Celtic (by which they must mean Welsh word) and that it means "oak-knower". That is nonsense. Not only doesn't it make sense (unless we suppose some nefarious sexual practices :), but it doesn't make sense linguistically.
And like most of these supposed "Celtic" words of Roman Britain there is a far simpler etymology if we start not from some supposed "Celtic master-race" but instead from the simple hypothesis that people in Roman Britain spoke much the same languages then as they did several hundred years later when we get the first definite evidence of their language.
Who were the druids?
Julius Caesar has the best descriptions of their role in his account of the Gallic War (c55 BC):
Throughout all Gaul there are ... the Druids, [who] are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. ... they determine respecting almost all controversies ... they decree rewards and punishments; ... This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed thither for the purpose of studying it. (Bk. vi. 13-16)
And Pliny (c78AD) adds to the description telling us:
At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art, and that, with ceremonials so august, that she might almost seem [Note] to have been the first to communicate them to the people of Persia. (Plin. Nat. 30.4) (Latin)
The Gallic provinces, too, were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that put down their Druids, and all that tribe of wizards and physicians.(Plin. Nat. 30.4) (Latin)
The Druids were priests, magistrates & physicians.
Who says they were "Oak knowers"?
Where does this idea that their name means "Oak Knower" come from? There is no such statement until the madness of modern scholars, but there is a passage from Pliny which clearly initiated the idea with oaks:
The Druids ... held nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree that bears it, supposing always that tree to be the oak. [it] is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without employing branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree.
Pliny says the Oak is sacred to them and then says that these Druids located in Britain and France might have received their name from the Greek word for Oak. Note he says might and clearly this is speculation on his part. The key question here is this: would he have known the etymology in the langauge of the druids if there was one? The answer to this comes later in the same passage referring to the collection of Mistletoe, where Pliny says:
Pliny's source is someone who knew the language of the Druids enough to know they called the moon "all-healing". But even so, this source clearly did not have an origin for the word "Druid" in "their language". This is why Pliny is unable to give the meaning "in their own language" and so was forced to suggest a word from a language (Greek) which (as far as we know) would not be expected to be connected to the Druids.
The dubious "Celtic" etymology of Druid
Often I think etymologies of words are intentionally complex to suggest more depth than really exists. This is very true of the "etymology" of Druid. So, unfortunately, iIt is full of obscure terminology, but the key ones are that anything with a "*" is a made up word. So, e.g. no one has ever found the word "Derwos", dru, dru-wid, wid in any text. So, how can they be so certain it is "from" Celtic, when they have not found any of the words from which it supposed derives? The answer is that no reasonable person could be certain and so even if this were likely it should say "likely from" or "perhaps from" not a categorical "from".
Druid: from Celtic compound *dru-wid-, probably representing Old Celtic *derwos "true" PIE *dru- "tree" (especially oak) + *wid- "to know". Hence, literally, perhaps, "they who know the oak".
So, we are told, "Druid" is old Welsh, for that is what is meant here by "Celtic".
But hang on. In welsh dru does not mean "true" or "oak". Because True in Welsh is "Gwir". Instead the word they must be referring to is "Diau" which means "without doubt". These are not the same. Tony Blair was "without doubt" about WMD - but that didn't mean they were there! Worse "Diau" is not a likely candidate as it doesn't even have the right startDR-. Oak is little better. The welsh is " derwen (or derw, der). Again this does not have the required starting "DR-"
But it completely falls apart when we look at the supposed second part. This "*Wid" ... it doesn't appear in Welsh at all. In welsh "to know" is given by:
"Adnabod" is the literary form of "nabod".
"Medru" is used predominantly in N. Wales. Compared to "gallu", it has the additional sense of "know how to".
Adnabod (nabod) is used for knowing a person or place.
Gwybod is used for knowing a fact.
Instead "wid" is not Welsh at all but supposed "proto-IndoEuropean". And whilst this supposedly is the origin of Welsh and Irish words, the Welsh and Irish words that supposedly derive from this proto-IndoEuropean are not at all like "Wid":
Old Irish: fis
Scottish Gaelic: fios
What we see here is the typical "Celtic" slight of hand. Because these Welsh and Irish words are nothing like the required "wid". They don't start with 'W'. They don't end with a 'd'!
In fact, the word *Wid is based on the Germanic *wit and in particular the Old English word (wit).
So, now we can update this supposed "celtic" etymology:
Druid: derw-wit-, from welsh derw "oak" + old English wit- from witan (to know)
The bias against Old English
Old English isn't ... how do I put this? It isn't the favourite language of "scholars". For much of the last millennium since the "French" invasion of 1066, the social elite in Britain looked down on Anglo Saxon as the uncouth language of the common folk. That's why we have the idea that Anglo Saxon is the language of swearing and the origin of words" like shit, fart, shit, turd, arse etc.
In contrast, Latin, Greek and French were seen as the languages of the learned elite and thus learning and administration is full of words derived (or believed to dreive) from French: bailiff, chancellor, council, government, mayor, minister, parliament, abbey, clergy, cloister, diocese, friar, mass, parish, prayer, preach, priest, baron, count, dame, duke, marquis, prince, sir, justice, judge, jury, attorney, court, case.
And old English words to do with administration like wice (officer), wicnung (discharging an office), from wician (to lodge, to camp) are now only known by negative connotations like that of wicing (fighter aka 'Viking') & wicca (witch).
The origin of Drug
Like Druid, if we look at the supposed origin of "Drug" (like Cannabis) we can see the same obvious jump to French:
drug: "medicine, chemical ingredients," from Old French droge "supply, stock, provision", of unknown origin, perhaps from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German droge-vate "dry barrels," or droge waere, literally "dry wares,"
But if we then look up the etymology of "Dry" we find:
Dry: OE. druȝe, druye, drie, AS. dryge,; akin to LG. dröge, D. droog, OHG. trucchan, G. trocken, Icel. draugr, a dry log. Cf. Drought Drouth, 3d Drug
And English is not the only place we find "dry" being used for "drug":
hashish: from Arabic hashish "powdered hemp," literally "dry herb," from hashsha "it became dry, it dried up."
In Old English we have "drygan" (to dry) and drugian (to become dry) from which we get "dryge" (dried) and "*druge", but if we believe the academics, this never meant "herbs which are dried" as in "drug". So, a "drug" was clearly something that was dried - which at a time of plant remedies meant dried herbs.
However, whilst the two "dry" and "drug" appear to be identical, what we really need to find is a word that is clearly Old English and related to "dryge" which shows a medical use. And here it is:
ge-dreog a dressing, something used in preparing material for use
The likely origin of Druid is Old English
Pliny tells us that amongst the Druids roles was that of the Physician or "Druggist".
Druwian (to become dry, wither)
"I dry" is in Old English "ic druwede" (pronounced DRUEDE)
So translated into Latin with an appropriate Latin ending that would become:-
Isn't that Wizard!
But why isn't there "Druid" in Old English? Yes there is!
Dry or its variant drea is an Old English word for "wizard".
dreog (a dressing, fit sober, serious, tame gentle)
dreogan (to lead a [certain] life, do, work)
And perhaps we even see a variant of the word being used in the funeral words:
Dust to dust ...
Old English Dust variant Druh (dust or something dry).
So, Druid derives from the old English "to dry" where "I dry" is Old English "ic druwede". This is also the root of from which we get "drug" and "dust", so a druid was someone who dried herbs as medicines and we may also see the "Druid" influence in the reference to "dust" in the burial ceremony.
Is there any way to decide this? Perhaps there is. If we return to Pliny's quote:
This day [the Druids] select because the moon, ... and they call her by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing.
We hear that the Old English considered:
"lc líchamlíce gesceaft ðe eorþe ácenþ is fulre and mægenfæstre on fullum mónan ðonne on gewanedum"
every bodily creature that earth produces is more complete and more vigorous at the full moon than when the moon has waned, Homl. Th. i. 102, 21.
So, the old English naturally thought the moon was healing. Looking further we find the following closely related words in Old English:
haelan (To heal, make whole, cure, make safe, save)
hálian (To become hale, whole, to heal, to get well)
So healing and holy are very closely related. So the phrase "all-healing" may be another form of the common phrase:
eall-hálig; adj. All-holy; omnno sanctus :-- Drihten, ðú earce eart eall-háligra O Lord, thou art the ark of the all-holy, Ps. Th. 131, 8.
And so this may well be the phrase that Pliny was referring to:
"Whiles I stood rapt in the wonder of it, came missives from the king, who all-hailed me “Thane of Cawdor.”"