What did the word woman mean?

Etymology. From Middle English womman, wimman, wifman, from Old English wīfmann (“woman”, literally “female person”), a compound of wīf (“woman, female”, whence English wife) +‎ mann (“person, human being”, whence English man); thus equivalent to wife +‎ man.

In light of recent controversy over the notion of “toxic masculinity” it’s tempting to choose “toxic” as our first word for 2019.  However, seems more fitting to begin our year with the focus of one of the most significant non-toxic social justice movements of 2019: #metoo and #believe women.  This consciousness raising movement began in order to bring attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault and to stand in solidarity with victims who speak out against it.  Because women are disproportionally targets of gender-based harassment and assault, it may be helpful to take a closer look at the word “woman.”

It’s notable that so few words in the English language refer to women without making etymological reference to men.  There is the male, and there is the fe-male; the man and there is the wo-man.

Whenever we as women talk about ourselves, the man seems to be lurking in the etymological background, so to speak.  The origin of the word “Female” is the Latin word “Femina,” meaning ‘woman,’ while the Latin word for man is “Vir.” So, while the words “Male” and “Female” were not originally linked etymologically, the spelling of Femina was changed in the 14th century in order to associate the idea of the female with the male.

‘Woman,’ similarly, is from the the Old English word for “wife”—“wiffman”—which, as you hear, is also related to “man.”  But because of significant influence of Christianity (and particularly the King James Version of the Bible) on the English language and American culture, many mistakenly believe that the “wo” in “woman” is a prefix, meaning “out of.”

In the Hebrew Bible’s books of Genesis, the Hebrew the Hebrew for “man” is ish and “woman” is ishah because Eve was “taken out of” the man’s side:

“This is now bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called ‘woman,’

for she was taken out of man.”

So even where there is no etymological reference to women’s dependence, there is often a conceptual or theological one.

There are, however, some words, like “girl” that bear no etymological or conceptual relationship to men, but even here, things are complicated. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, the word “girl” could be applied to either gender. Any young person could be called a “girl.”  In order to avoid confusion, people would sometimes attach descriptive adjectives to the word “girl.” So, a young boy would be called a “knave girl,” and a young girl would be called a “gay girl.”

It is always hard to judge to what degree language merely reflects a culture’s assumptions about gender and to what degree it actively shapes them.  At the very least, these aspects of the English language appear to reflect a long history of belief that women are both dependent on and inferior to men.  For example, Aristotle defines woman as “a male deformed” and 15 centuries later, the Medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, is still committed to that view.

The ancients erroneously believed thought that men contributed all of the “form” (what we might think of today as genetic information) in reproduction, and that women only contributed the raw material. So if reproduction went “perfectly,” the offspring would always be like the father: a boy.  In fact, even though our scientific knowledge has improved over the centuries, similar attitudes about women persist.  That’s why Simone De Beauvoir famously describes woman as “The Second Sex.”  She says that Woman is “determined and differentiated in relation to man. He is the Subject; She is the Other.”

Although it might be easy to dismiss this view as outdated, one wonders why “mankind” is still thought of as “he”, a unisex shirt is identical to a man’s shirt, and why little girls read Harry Potter, but very few parents give their sons Nancy Drew.

What’s the word is a new occasional series produced by the Murray State University Department of English and Philosophy that explores issues of the English language that are popping up in contemporary conversations. 

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