Old English wicce "female magician, sorceress," in later use especially "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts," fem. of Old English wicca "sorcerer, wizard, man who practices witchcraft or magic," from verb wiccian "to practice witchcraft" (compare Low German wikken, wicken "to use witchcraft," wikker, wicker "soothsayer").
OED says of uncertain origin; Liberman says "None of the proposed etymologies of witch is free from phonetic or semantic difficulties." Klein suggests connection with Old English wigle "divination," and wig, wih "idol." Watkins says the nouns represent a Proto-Germanic *wikkjaz "necromancer" (one who wakes the dead), from PIE *weg-yo-, from PIE root *weg- "to be strong, be lively."
That wicce once had a more specific sense than the later general one of "female magician, sorceress" perhaps is suggested by the presence of other words in Old English describing more specific kinds of magical craft. In the Laws of Ælfred (c. 890), witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons:
Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfon gealdorcræftigan & scinlæcan & wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban.
The other two words combined with it here are gealdricge, a woman who practices "incantations," and scinlæce "female wizard, woman magician," from a root meaning "phantom, evil spirit." Another word that appears in the Anglo-Saxon laws is lyblæca "wizard, sorcerer," but with suggestions of skill in the use of drugs, because the root of the word is lybb "drug, poison, charm" (see leaf (n.)). Lybbestre was a fem. word meaning "sorceress," and lybcorn was the name of a certain medicinal seed (perhaps wild saffron). Weekley notes possible connection to Gothic weihs "holy" and German weihan "consecrate," and writes, "the priests of a suppressed religion naturally become magicians to its successors or opponents." In Anglo-Saxon glossaries, wicca renders Latin augur (c. 1100), and wicce stands for "pythoness, divinatricem." In the "Three Kings of Cologne" (c. 1400) wicca translates Magi:
Þe paynyms ... cleped þe iij kyngis Magos, þat is to seye wicchis.
The glossary translates Latin necromantia ("demonum invocatio") with galdre, wiccecræft. The Anglo-Saxon poem called "Men's Crafts" (also "The Gifts of Men") has wiccræft, which appears to be the same word, and by its context means "skill with horses." In a c. 1250 translation of "Exodus," witches is used of the Egyptian midwives who save the newborn sons of the Hebrews: "Ðe wicches hidden hem for-ðan, Biforen pharaun nolden he ben." Witch in reference to a man survived in dialect into 20c., but the fem. form was so dominant by 1601 that men-witches or he-witch began to be used.
Extended sense of "old, ugly, and crabbed or malignant woman" is from early 15c; that of "young woman or girl of bewitching aspect or manners" is first recorded 1740. Witch doctor is from 1718; applied to African magicians from 1836.
At this day it is indifferent to say in the English tongue, 'she is a witch,' or 'she is a wise woman.' [Reginald Scot, "The Discoverie of Witchcraft," 1584]
Old English hecg "hedge," originally any fence, living or artificial, from West Germanic *hagjo (source also of Middle Dutch hegge, Dutch heg, Old High German hegga, German Hecke "hedge"), from a verb *hagjanan, from PIE root *kagh- "to catch, seize; wickerwork, fence" (source also of Latin caulae "a sheepfold, enclosure," Gaulish caio "circumvallation," Welsh cae "fence, hedge"). Related to Old English haga "enclosure, hedge" (see haw (n.)).
Figurative sense of "boundary, barrier" is from mid-14c. As hedges were "often used by vagabonds as places of shelter or resort" [Century Dictionary], the word, compounded, "notes something mean, vile, of the lowest class" [Johnson], from contemptuous attributive sense of "plying one's trade under a hedge" (hedge-priest, hedge-lawyer, hedge-wench, etc.), a usage attested from 1530s. The noun in the betting sense is from 1736 (see hedge (v.)).
1853 in the literal sense (witch-hunting is from 1630s), from witch (n.) + hunt (n.). The extended sense is attested from 1919, American English, later re-popularized in reaction to Cold War anti-Communism.
Senator [Lee S.] Overman. What do you mean by witch hunt?
Mr. [Raymond] Robins. I mean this, Senator. You are familiar with the old witch-hunt attitude, that when people get frightened at things and see bogies, then they get out witch proclamations, and mob action and all kinds of hysteria takes place. ["Bolshevik Propaganda," U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings, 1919]
1540s, probably from Old English wice "Applied generally or vaguely to various trees having pliant branches" [OED], from wican "to bend" (from PIE root *weik- (2) "to bend, to wind") + hæsel, used for any bush of the pine family (see hazel (n.)). The North American bush, from which a soothing lotion is made, was so called from 1670s. This is the source of the verb witch in dowsing.
The first element probably is cognate with Old English haga "enclosure, portion of woodland marked off for cutting" (see hedge (n.)). Old Norse had tunriða and Old High German zunritha, both literally "hedge-rider," used of witches and ghosts. The second element in the prehistoric compound may be connected with Norwegian tysja "fairy; crippled woman," Gaulish dusius "demon," Lithuanian dvasia "spirit," from PIE *dhewes- "to fly about, smoke, be scattered, vanish."
One of the magic words for which there is no male form, suggesting its original meaning was close to "diviner, soothsayer," which were always female in northern European paganism, and hægtesse seem at one time to have meant "woman of prophetic and oracular powers" (Ælfric uses it to render the Greek "pythoness," the voice of the Delphic oracle), a figure greatly feared and respected. Later, the word was used of village wise women.
Haga is also the haw- in hawthorn, which is an important tree in northern European pagan religion. There may be several layers of folk etymology here. Confusion or blending with heathenish is suggested by Middle English hæhtis, hægtis "hag, witch, fury, etc.," and haetnesse "goddess," used of Minerva and Diana.
If the hægtesse once was a powerful supernatural woman (in Norse it is an alternative word for Norn, any of the three weird sisters, the equivalent of the Fates), it might originally have carried the hawthorn sense. Later, when the pagan magic was reduced to local scatterings, it might have had the sense of "hedge-rider," or "she who straddles the hedge," because the hedge was the boundary between the civilized world of the village and the wild world beyond. The hægtesse would have a foot in each reality. Even later, when it meant the local healer and root collector, living in the open and moving from village to village, it may have had the mildly pejorative Middle English sense of hedge- (hedge-priest, etc.), suggesting an itinerant sleeping under bushes. The same word could have contained all three senses before being reduced to its modern one.