Word Nerd: On March 8, we ask, Whence Cometh Woman?

March 8th designates International Women’s Day, which has been celebrated since 1975. Since the lady has been honoured for 54 years, it is now incumbent that we turn our attention to the oft-misunderstood origin of the word “woman.”

Discussions about this word’s origin inevitably entails someone becoming apoplectic that woman ends in “man.” (I mean, how controlling do men have to be?)

This supposed outrage has led to other alleged affronts such as feeling that word history is sexist and should be accompanied by “herstory.” Truth be told, however, the word woman does not designate that a woman is a “wo” version of a male, nor does she represent a compound of womb and man. Woman started out as wifman in Old English with man only designating “person.”

Hence, wifman only meant “female person.” We find in Beowulf, written sometime between 975 and 1025, the designation woepnedman for the male of the species and woepned referrednot only to maleness but also to “pertaining to weapons.” Another term for my bellicose gender was the term guma or gome which enjoys a half-life in the word “bridegroom.”

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By the end of the Old English period the f of wifman was disappearing and thus emerged wiman and by the 13th century, we see the form “woman” developing. Woman didn’t finally jettison the two more ancient words for female person wif and the more obsolete quean until the end of the Middle English period.

By the way, the semantic restriction of wife to “married person” began in the Old English period and became more entrenched in subsequent centuries. Likewise, history doesn’t designate “his story” and derives from the classical Latin historia, “account of events” and even further back we find the Greek histor, “learned man.”

But the question remains, is the woman a lady? Etymologically, the answer is settled. If she kneads bread, she’s a lady. The term derives from the Old English hlafdi which represents a sandwich comprised of hlaf (from whence we get “loaf”), “bread,” and the root –dig “knead” (related to the English “dough”). The lady’s hubby, the lord, is the guardian of the bread, hlafweard, which was then rendered as
hlaford and in the 14th century this became shortened to the single syllable “lord.”

So while the lady’s provenance is crystal-clear, matters are fuzzier with the lady’s earlier state — “girl.” We do know, however, that the term was originally gender-neutral and meant “child”; a male child was a “knave-girl.” Strangely, there is not a definitive term for a female child and the only
recorded usages are “gay girl” and “little girl.” Through the process the semantic narrowing the word “girl” came to refer to only female children starting in the latter part of the 14th century. There are many theories of where the term came from originally, but all seem fairly conjectural in nature.

We do, however, know more about some of the familial terms for females. In fact, the word daughter can be traced back to the Indo-European dhughater and the Sanskrit duhitr. Originally, the word daughter was pronounced to rhyme with the words “rafter,” and “laughter,” not surprisingly because in English the “gh” sound is often pronounced as an “f” as in the words “rough” and “enough.” We see the spelling “dafter” during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and a century later in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812.

Aunt derives from the French tante. However, tante itself was a modification of the spelling of the original French word which was rendered as aunte.

In any case whether you are a woman, lady, girl, daughter or aunt, and possibly have enjoyed all these designations at one juncture in your life, enjoy this year’s International Women’s Day.

Howard’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.


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