Etymology Theater: The Etymologyning

Posted: January 5, 2012 in Uncategorized
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What’s that you say? You’d like to get some etymology all up in the hizzy?

(…I think that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that phrase. Also the last. I am a bad, bad person.)

I love etymology. Words are interesting to me, as you all should know: I collect words such as “chthonic”, “sesquipedalian”, and “col” like a magpie, always dragging glittering shiny pieces of word-tinsel away to my brain-nest. But this isn’t why I want to talk to you about etymology today. This edition of “Etymology Theater” is actually a public service announcement in disguise.

The announcement is:



I hear this all the time: that the etymology of the word “woman” is “of man” or “out of man”. This is completely untrue. There is no prefix *wo– in the English language that means “of”. There never has been.

So where does the word “woman” come from?

Well, in Old English, the word for “human” was mann. This is where we get the term “mankind” from, meaning “the whole of humanity”. The word “mankind” has been labeled sexist by people in modern times, but the truth is, it’s just a case of semantic drift of the word “man”.

The original English word for “woman” was wíf, and the word for “man” was wer. Each term could be combined with mann to make the terms wífmann and wermann, each one meaning “female human” and “male human” respectively. However, when the Normans invaded England in 1066, they made assumptions about the language that were unfounded. The Normans started to use the word mann to refer only to male humans. The term wifmann, on the other hand, evolved into our Modern English term “woman”, losing the cumbersome labiodental fricative in the middle of the word. And the Old English term wíf gradually underwent diphthongization in the Great Vowel Shift, becoming our word “wife”, meaning a married woman.

So, the term “woman” isn’t sexist, the French were sexist! (Yet another problem that can be blamed on the French, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and the Vietnam War.) The word wer, meaning male human, eventually died out, surviving as a fossil in occasional English words, such as “werewolf”. (There wolf! There castle!)

Now, I’m not saying that the English language isn’t sexist. It is. But every language established in a patriarchal culture (i.e. pretty much all of them) is going to have some sexist elements. I’m sorry that’s the case, but it’s the truth.


It has been said hundreds of times, if not thousands, that the word “woman” isn’t sexist by people who know language. And yet, people still don’t listen. A friend of mine, when showing me an excerpt from her (admittedly excellent) graphic novel, used that same etymology in one of her panels. When I told her that the etymology of “woman” that she used was incorrect, she said,

“I looked it up on the internet. That’s what it said.”

Well, it’s wrong. Even says so. So if you’re looking to say that “woman” is a sexist term, then you should remember this blog.

Oh, one more thing: if you’re going to use the justification of Genesis 2:23 for saying that the term “woman” means “of man”… seriously. Don’t. Remember: the book of Genesis wasn’t written in English. English didn’t exist at the time. Hell, people were still speaking Proto-Germanic on the shores of the Baltic Sea back then.

If you’re one of those people who thinks the Bible was written in English, then I’m afraid that you may have a terminal case of the stupids. Please cure this by reading a book that doesn’t have any begats in it.

And on that note, I’ll close up for the afternoon. I wish you a wonderful, non-sexist day, and I hope you learn five awesome new words.

~ Ian

  1. Hagar Qim says:

    something descriptive becoming sexist…

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