Although the majority of English words are loaned, borrowed, or stolen from other languages, woman has no cognates in contemporary or historic foreign languages, making it one of few exclusively English words. The word is derived from wyfman, the combination of wyf [wife] and man. Following is an examination of the word’s history, and a brief glance at its possible future.
The word wyf is a cognate of several languages, including Old French (OF) and Old Saxon (OS). In the Early Old English (eOE), wyf was used to describe a member of the female gender, unlike our contemporary use of the word, meaning ‘a married woman’ and correlating to husband. “Alduuif” makes an appearance in one of the oldest English texts, the Corpus Glossary, in around the year 725, then “wiifa” we see in 900 and “uif” in 950. By 1175 wife began to be used to denote a married female, and the two meanings coexisted until the late 16th century when a new meaning emerged: that of the marketer or saleswoman. In 1635, we see “Oyster wives, herb wives, tripe wives”, the structure of which we recognize in the words ale-wife and fishwife, with the connotation of a lower class woman. From this point on, the sense of ‘adult human female’ in the word wife is completely replaced by ‘lower class marketer’ and ‘female spouse’.
While the sense of wife was changing, there arose a need for a word to take up the mantle of ‘adult human female’. Meanwhile, there was a need in ME for a word meaning ‘adult human male’. The words were and wapman, meaning ‘male’ and ‘males’ respectively, had become entirely obsolete by the 13th century. The only word left to mean ‘adult human male’ was the word man, which had until then been used irrespective of sex to mean simply, ‘human’. Both problems were temporarily solved by the combination of the words wife and man into wifman, literally meaning ‘female human’. The earliest usage of wifmon occurs by 893, and by 1225 we see wummon appear, indicating the shift in the first vowel sound from wi to wu.
By 1400, the singular woman and plural women were established, and these became the usual spellings. The suffix –en was a common suffix used for pluralization, such as is found in the modern oxen, but also bears a similarity to the suffix –en used for feminization, which survives singularly in the modern word vixen, meaning ‘female fox’. Also, it is interesting to note that although the spelling of the second vowel changes between the singular and plural forms, the pronunciation does not. Instead, it is the first vowel sound that changes, from the singular: wu-, to the plural: wi-. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this may be due to the “associative influence of pairs like foot and feet” (“woman, n.” etymology).
The phrases “woe man” and “wee men”, convincing homonyms though they might be, are neither synonyms nor sources for woman or women. They are simply the result of happy coincidence, and have been used as puns, commonly in the Early Modern period. This usage could be humorous or serious. For example, in 1534, Sir Thomas More writes in his A Dialogue of Comforte Against Tribulation, “Man himselfe borne of a woman, is in deede a wo man, that is, ful of wo and miserie” (“woman, n.” 1k). Richard Flecknoe is quoted in the OED with “Say of Woman worst ye can, What prolongs their woe, but man?” in 1653 (Ibid). These puns are not exclusive to the 16th and 17th centuries, for surely they are made today, but it is interesting to note that they were the most prolific at the time of the English tract-writing controversy known as The Querelle de la Rose. During this time, the virtues and vices of the female gender were being argued, with women writers emerging to argue for the first time on behalf of their own sex. It was surely a time for upsetting the genders’ status quo.
Currently, in the late 20th and early 21st century, we are in the midst of another shift in the ongoing history of the word woman, especially as it relates to man. This shift is due in large part to the growing awareness of feminism, which has its roots in the Querelle. The usage of the word man to indicate humanity is being protested, especially in the compound words such as chairman and policeman, in which the –man is becoming obsolete and is being replaced by –person. Because of the feminist movement and the shift in meaning in man from ‘human’ to ‘male’ growing ever stronger, we are in need of gender-neutral words for mankind. (Human and mankind, for example, both employ the root word man.) We can connect this gap in our language back to the 13th century when, rather than using a new word for ‘male human’ when were became obsolete, we simply added to the established gender-neutral man to create woman, thereby leaving man to indicate maleness by default. A better fix would have been to add something to man to indicate maleness as well as adding wyf to indicate femaleness. However, language is never created by design, but by evolution and adaptation. We may yet see a prefix added to man to indicate maleness, or we may see something entirely new arise to fit the meaning we need.
In addition to protesting the compound words chairman and policeman, some feminists have removed man from the very word woman. ‘Womyn’ is a new alteration of the plural women, replacing –men with the nonce suffix –myn, appearing for the first time in 1975. Currently it is only used by feminist groups, but 100 years from now may be a foundation for menmyn, replacing the etymological wyf with the current man to mean ‘adult male human’, while man reverts back to its original genderless state.
Works Consulted or Cited
“man, n.1 (and int.)” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/00300790>
“wife, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/50285384>
“woman, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/50286733>
“womyn, n.” OED Online. June 2003. Oxford University Press. 31 January 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/cgi/entry/20010437>