International Women’s Day is March 8. On this day, people around the world celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The first celebration was held in 1911, and the event was recognized by the United Nations starting in 1975.
It’s a great time to think about the origin of the word “woman.”
It’s a combination of the words “wife” and “man.”
Now, that’s not necessarily as discriminatory as it sounds. You see, when Old English was first being spoken in the 5th century AD, there were two distinct words for men and women: “wer” meant “adult male,” and “wif” meant “adult female.” There was a third word, “man,” which simply meant “person” or “human being.”
These words could be combined: “wer” plus “man” (in the form of “waepman”) meant “adult male person.” “Wif” plus “man” (“wifman”) meant “adult female person.”
Spelling wasn’t consistent back then, so we see some variations: wifmon, wifmanna, and wifmone, for example. But by the Middle English period, usage standardized into “wimman” and “wommon.” And by the 1600s, the versions we know today were established: “woman,” singular, and “women,” plural.
Those middle forms, “wimman” and “wommon” with the two M’s in the middle, remind me of Noah Webster’s efforts to simplify English spelling by suggesting changing the spelling “woman” to “wimmen” to have the spelling better match the pronunciation. “Wimmen.” He put that in his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language dictionary, but it didn’t catch on.
By the way, the original Old English word “wif,” meaning “adult female,” stuck around, but in a different form. Its meaning narrowed into the one we know today: a married woman.
And the Old English word for “adult male” evolved into a simplified form. The compound word “weapman” melted into the simple word we use today: “man.”
One thing that’s also interesting is that before the advent of “wifmon,” there was another word for a female, adult woman: “quaen.” This word has the same Indo-European base as the Sanskrit “jani,” and the Ancient Greek “gynē.”
Although “quaen” started out as meaning “a female,” its meaning degraded over time. By the early Middle English period, it was a term of abuse, meaning a bold or impudent woman — or a prostitute.
At the same time, “quaen” evolved into the word “queen,” which we use today to refer to the female ruler of an independent state. That’s a pretty big dichotomy.
Maybe the lesson to take from all this is that the role of women in society has always been complex. Whatever the case, your tidbit for today is this: the word “woman” was originally a compound of the Old English words for “woman” and “human being.” Sounds about right to me.
Danesi, Marcel. Linguistic Theory: A Brief Introduction, pp. 77. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2012.
Etymology Online. Woman. https://www.etymonline.com/word/woman (accessed February 26, 2020).
Oxford English Dictionary Online. Woman, Man, Queen, Quaen, Wife. https://www.oed.com/. Subscription required (accessed February 26, 2020).
[Editor's Note: This article was significantly updated from the original on March 18, 2020.]