Fun with Etymology: I Am Woman

Good day, everybody. It's time to dive once more into the deep waters of feminist etymology, and what better word to explore today than woman. Now, in order to examine woman we will have to explore the word man – it is, after all, the base noun in woman. And, of course, the neologism womon/womyn will crop up near the end.

So, let's get to it.

I. False Starts and Misimpressions

So, let's start off with some incorrect etymologies. We can laugh at a few of them, because they are indeed laughable. We can shake our head at others, because they're blatantly misogynist. We can rest assured, however, that they are and always have been wrong.

So, who has ever heard that the etymology of woman is woe + man? Usually you hear this one from your crazy misogynist uncle during Thanksgiving dinner. And, like nearly everything else your crazy misogynist uncle says during Thanksgiving dinner (and at all other times), it's wrong.

The formula suggests that woman adds woe to man and serves as a bringer of said woe. This etymology seems largely informed by readings of Genesis which put all of the blame for sin, death, and humanity's fallen state on Eve and thus all womanhood in general. It's not an uncommon reading of Genesis (though I much prefer the reading where Adam is clearly a moron - at least Eve was convinced by actual arguments). A quick Google of Woe Man results in some perpetuation of this false etymology, including this Yahoo! Answers post explaining that this etymology is false and leading us to our next:

Actually the English word "woman" is a contraction for "womb-man."

Eve, as she was taken out of Adam, a man, is a special kind of man. She was a womb-man.

This scripture is clear that both male and female are considered "man":
Gen 1:27 So God created man in his [own] image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.


Womb-man. This is yet another etymology figured as deriving from Christian scriptures. Have I mentioned that the English language predates the Christianization of the English? Because it does. While the writing of English in Latin letters post-dates the introduction of Christianity, the words did not simply pop into existence from nothing. They were, in fact, already in use before Christianity was introduced to the Anglo-Saxons (there's a fun story to that, actually - and it's rather homoerotic in nature. Basically, Pope Gregory the Great saw some fine looking slaves on the market one day and asked where those men were from. He was told they were from a place called England. He asked what they called themselves, and he was told they were called Angles. Then he asked if they were Christians in England, and he was told no, to which he said it was a shame, because they had the faces of angels. So he decided to have the people of England converted because they were so pretty). So, just on the fact that English predates Christianity in England, we can forget about the supposed origin of womb-man in Christianity.

But what about womb-man itself? Couldn't that be a reasonable etymology? We can cross off the parts that are scripturally-motivated, but woman has man for a base. Woman derives from man, and denotes difference, yeah? And why couldn't that distinction be the presence of the womb? It makes a superficial kind of sense, and a contraction (pun intended) would result in wo + man.

But that assumes English spelling has never changed. That would be a silly assumption. Just open some Shakespeare, or Donne, or if you're feeling really interested, some Chaucer, Gawain and the Green Knight, and Layamon's Brut. If you really want to stretch yourself and see where the language has gone, pull up some Ælfric or Wulfstan and prepare for a bumpy ride. Point being, spelling has changed over time (more drastically pre-print than since, but still).


So womb-man is not quite it, though. And indeed far off by quite a long ways. It appears to originate with Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum (1736). While our erstwhile Yahoo above did manage to get one fact correct (we'll get to which one in a bit), we have one more folk etymology to get to before we see the truth, and it's another that Bailey promoted in his dictionary (he promoted all three, actually) and gave a great deal of space to.

Bailey's third false etymology is web-man. Web here is in the sense of weaving, and this etymology of course plays into traditional gender roles. Women weave, so they must be weaving-men, web-men, or, combining the gender roles with the creation story, woven from men. Hooray for gender roles encoded into language. Ladies just wouldn't know to do the weaving and sewing if we called them by anything other than women... like ladies - that might give them false impressions of their social station.

Now, as I've said, these are all three false etymologies. Not one of these is correct, though what is actually true often has less bearing on reality than what is perceived to be true. And all three of these etymologies were included in Bailey's dictionary, which served as a precursor to Sam Johnson and Noah Webster's dictionaries from 1755 and 1828, respectively. Here is Bailey's entry, along with a transcription. I spell out his abbreviations, and regularize some spellings.


Woman, (Irregular Plural) Women [ƿiman, probably of ƿamb and man, or as some will of ƿyfman, Saxon of wyf or wif, Teutonic a Web and Man; but in that manner it is better derived from man, Celtic Britain a Web and Man, quod dicere (which is to say) a weaving person, for Man, in its original signifies as Homo in Latin, either Man or Woman. And the distinguishing name for the male Sex was in Saxon þer, þere, or þerd of were, wehramair, Celtic, from whence likewise the Latin vir.] the female of human race.

Women, wealth, and wine, have each two Qualities, a good and a bad.

That is, they are either a blessing or a curse, according to the use we make of them. The French say: Femme, Argent, et Vin, ont leur bient et leur venin, (i.e. they have their good and their poison.)

Woman Wo[e] to Man

Got to love the misogynist bent it takes at the end. It starts off all reasonable-like. "Oh, women have wombs and they weave. That's why we call them women. Also they're like money and wine and if you use your women wrong bad things will happen to you." Wait, what now? If you ever run into someone who tries to tell you that women were never treated like property, show them this dictionary entry. "According to the use we [men] make of them" is as clear a declaration of "I own this thing" as it gets. And of course you have the woe to man part. I can imagine two upper-class 18th century dudes talking about women now.

Why Reginald, have you read the latest Spectator?

No, I have not, Charles. What Matter of import does Mr. Spectator talk of to-day?

He speaks of the Sex and the wo they bring to Man. I say, you are a married Fellow. Could you confirm this wo-bringing?

If he speaks of wo to Man, Mr. Spectator has the Right of it. My wife is as the French say like Argent pur, and has done me much Good in our time together. She has borne me three Sons, all endowed with good Sense and fine Wits, and two Daughters fit to become Baronesses should worthy suitors come calling on them. However, she also prattles on about her Novels without end. She reads that dreadful Man Samuel Richardson who preys upon the feminine Mind with his stories of housewives named Pamela and Clarissa and fills their Heads with pretty thoughts that have no Business there being.

That sounds dreadful, Reginald.

Quite. Quite. I am afraid I have not been stern enough in my Instruction of how she is to conduct her Leisure. Would you believe that she has taken up Letters and now can scarce be found without a Pen in hand?


Yes. A fine weapon for a Pope or a Donne or a Dryden, but not fit for the delicate fingers of Woman. And then there's this Mary Wollstonecraft - she has caused quite a Sensation among the Ladies. When they write and read they only bring Misery upon us who must be subject to their unartful attempts at poesy.

Then indeed Mr. Spectator does have the Right of it. Women are wo to Man.

Noah Webster bought into the womb-man etymology as well, drawing a spurious link between the Latin and English spellings.


His linking of the spellings aside, Webster was smart enough to avoid the ludicrously wrongheaded Woe to Man etymology, and the overt misogyny infecting Bailey's entry. Of course, this doesn't stop him from using the actual etymology as a footnote to support another wrong one.

II. Getting Real

Sam Johnson did not, however, buy into these etymologies. But that doesn't mean he was a feminist. He really didn't have much to say about women at all, giving a perfunctory definition of woman and taking the opportunity in his definition of man to make clear that women are not men (see header image).


I said before that our Yahoo got one thing right, and Webster and Bailey also got it right. Woman derives from wif + man. Furthermore, it's here that we can see how woman is not a result of adding a prefix to man to denote difference. Instead we have a compound, not unlike crossbeam, with two full words being smushed together because English is a Germanic language and Germanic languages love agglutinative compounds. If anything, man acts as a suffix in these cases. As I said in a previous entry in this series, the word wif was once the Old English word for woman, occasionally used in compound with man in wifman (there was a comparable, though unattested, werman which took were and man in the same way), meaning woman as a general type of person, womankind if you will (whereas wif meant an individual woman). As for attested words, there was wǽpman (from wǽpenman - weapon man, used in the same way as wifman but to describe an adult male).

Man itself, however, was not marked for gender when referring to humans (it declined as a special case of a masculine noun, sometimes as a neuter noun), but its grammatical gender is not reflected as part of its actual meaning. Grammatically, man took masculine (rarely neuter) demonstratives and adjectives applied to it would take masculine (rarely neuter) endings.


A quick catchup on grammatical gender versus what's called "natural gender." Grammatical gender is more or less arbitrary, the names of the genders not having much of anything to do with the nouns belonging to them. Many languages have grammatical gender, and not merely of the masculine/neuter/feminine distinctions common in Indo-European languages. Basque and many Native American languages include gender categories based on animacy/inanimacy, while Dravidian languages include distinctions between rational and irrational nouns. Slavic languages include the familiar masculine/neuter/feminine genders, but some also include animate/inanimate distinction, and Polish even includes distinction between human and non-human in the plural. Some Australian languages don't distinguish gender at all between people, while some African languages have as many as twenty genders for their nouns.

Certain African and Aboriginal languages, such as the Fulfude language of the Niger-Congo region, have as many as twenty genders or noun classes all triggering different agreements in associated words (consider yourself lucky in your schooldays). Some of these noun classes are very narrow: the second gender of Ngangikurrunggurr, an Aboriginal language spoken in north-west Australia, is specifically for hunting weapons, and the ninth is reserved for dogs. Dyirbal, another Aboriginal Australian language, famously places "female humans, water, fire, fighting" in the second of its four genders (most other animate objects, including male humans, fall into the first category), which inspired the linguist George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (In fact, it might be worth speculating on whether the genders used in these languages reflect the way that their men class the nouns around them.)

On the other hand, male and female are not always distinguished: John Mansfield, currently researching the Murrinh Patha language of northern Australia, reports that the ten genders used are: kardu (people); ku (animals, meat, spirits); mi (edible plants); tju (weapons, not including spears); thamul (spears of many types); thungku (fire and fiery things); kura (water and other liquids); nandji (inanimate objects); murrinh (things relating to language); and da (places, and periods of time). The thamul class is falling out of use by the younger generation, as spears are no longer a central part of their world. Meanwhile, the Murrinh Patha people have integrated new Western concepts into their gender system in an interesting way: white people were originally assigned to ku, but are gradually being referred to as kardu, while heavy metal is also referred to as ku, perhaps because it is associated with black magic.


To cut to the chase, grammatical gender is all about word endings and how they change (or used to change). In Spanish this is, for the most part, straightforward. Generally nouns ending in -o are masculine and those ending in -a are feminine. But those ending in -ma are also masculine (they're descended from Latin nouns borrowed from Greek), and agua (water) is feminine but uses a masculine article in the singular (el agua, las aguas) due to the way Spanish handles word stress and elision (la agua would be pronounced lagua). See? Endings. They do things.

Natural gender is sex. Once the primary definition of sex became sexual intercourse, gender was the word chosen to fill in the void. It also makes some sense that way - gender derives from Latin genus, and conveniently enough was already used with words like masculine and feminine by linguists and grammarians, giving it a link which was easily ported over to discussion of actual people rather than word classes. Modern English lacks grammatical gender except in the third person pronouns. So, every inanimate noun is an it. If you're alive and not a human and nobody knows what parts you have, you're an it. If you're alive, non-human, but we know what parts you have, we use he or she, depending on the presence of male or female sex organs.


Humans are where it gets tricky for English. If your head is in the sand and you think that the only two options are male and female, congratulations! It's not hard for you at all. Take your he or she and go on home. But maybe you don't think those are adequate for you, or you want to talk about a non-specific person without knowing what their gender is. English is equipped to help you, but there's only one good option and a lot of people think it's a bad option, while one of the major bad options is seen by many of those same people as the only good option. "It" is right out, seeing as how it has not and never has been used for people. "He" is also right out, being the Johnny-come-lately to gender neutrality and rightfully mocked for thinking he could ever actually express gender neutrality. "They" is good (see that link above about the singular they), but some people get really ticked off about that one, and while it's a good option for non-specificity, you as a trans person might not want your pronoun to be they. Or maybe you might.

The point is that while English has jettisoned the gender trinary of masculine-neuter-feminine from its grammar, it hasn't from the language itself. A large number of people speaking English are thinking along those lines - you're either male (he), female (she), or not human (it). No exceptions, no wiggle room, which makes their confrontations with reality alternately amusing and horrifying. Being clearly human (disqualifying "it") while being androgynous (disqualifying in many people's minds "he" or "she") leaves no easy box to be put in, leading to confusion (a lack of imaginative capacity can lead to confusion quite often. Many of the same people have trouble if your skin doesn't fall into an easily-demarcated race box). Lacking adequate language, a number of people who might not be bigots may well say some seriously insensitive things about trans people. We can educate them and bring them up to speed. Bigots, however, are likely to seize on the he/she/it trinary and be deliberately insensitive. They tend to resist education. We can hope to educate their children and bring them up to speed, but that's a slow process.

And it's not just English where things get kind of muddled. Like I said, grammatical gender is arbitrary with relation to any kind of "real" or "natural" gender. In Spanish we have la mesa (the table). Is the table female? Spanish speakers use feminine adjectives, pronouns, and articles to talk about tables. And when learning a language where table is a different gender like Russian (стол - stol, masculine) or where it has no gender like in English, many Spanish-speakers will default back to the qualities of the Spanish word, expressed in the target language. They'll say "The table, she is..." or "I put the newspaper on her [the table]". Does this mean that Spanish speakers think tables are, in fact, female? (Probably not) Or does it simply reflect difficulty learning a language where the rules are very different? (Probably) Does the imposition of categories based on the same names we use to discuss gender identity upon objects cause people to make associations as if the objects in question did reflect a gender identity? (Also probably)


What does it mean then that Mädchen (girl, lit. maiden) is neuter in German? What about Irish cailín (girl) being masculine or Spanish gente (people) being singular and feminine even when the people in question is a group of men? Examples like these point once again to the arbitrariness of grammatical gender. Old English wif was neuter and wifman masculine. Somehow I doubt that the Anglo-Saxons saw women as sexless beings individually or secretly men as a generality (though it would explain the obsession with crossdressing saints in the medieval English literary tradition).

That is all a long, complicated, and probably needless way of getting to the point that the grammatical gender of a word need not reflect actual thought about the gender or sex of things that word refers to. Man, once upon a time, was indeed a masculine noun, but it did not on its own carry a particular masculine sense until the 13th century, when the words were and wǽpman fell out of use.

III. The Real Stuff

Woman. A vowel shift or two and the sublimation of the f into the m led us from wifman to woman, from "woman person" to "woman." The dropping of wer- and wǽpen has shifted us from wǽpman to man, from "weapon person, male person" to "man."


So what's the deal, then? Man used to mean person and not be gendered (it also used to be the way English marked the passive voice - man + third person verb = passive construction back in the day). So we're in the clear, mankind is good, my fellow man is not sexist, and Marry Wollstonecraft was quibbling over semantics when she wrote her Vindication on the Rights of Women because she'd already outlined what needed to be said when she wrote her Vindication on the Rights of Men. Man is still a valid word in a gender neutral context! It's not sexist at all! I just showed you how that's the case because of the etymology, right?

But etymology isn't definition, and it isn't usage either. Just because man used to be a non-gendered term does not mean it is anymore. Just look at Johnson's dictionary - "not a woman." And whereas in Johnson's time the primary definition was still given as a human being in general and a male human being specifically, nowadays things are different. The male part of the definition is primary and the human being part is secondary.

When we say mankind or man to refer to humanity as a whole nowadays, it's a word tinged with that primary meaning, colored with masculinity. To speak of the rights of man once would have been universally understood as referring to humanity as a whole without bringing the gender binary into the picture. But by the end of the 18th century that understanding was fractured, hence Wollstonecraft's separate pamphlets. In the time since the 18th century the understanding has fractured and split further, until the only proponents of gender-neutral man are either ridiculously adherent to the etymology of the word or actively misogynist.


So what do we do? Well, we obviously stop using words that carry a single, gendered meaning to refer to all humans everywhere. That seems simple enough, at least in English.

At the same time, it doesn't mean we have to change some of the words that do exist. Woman is perfectly fine as is. There's no need to go so far as to turn it into womyn. All those changes do is remove explicit signs of its etymology and change the spelling, otherwise keeping the word the same. Womon/womyn still derives from wifman just like woman does. If the goal was to distance "womyn" from having their word linked to men, the creators of this word really screwed the pooch. Mon was a totally legit spelling of man in Old English, so the singular is functionally the same and the spelling just fails at its intended purpose of separating woman from man. And the y in the plural just looks tacky. Whatever reasons there might be to change spelling come down to the simple desire to not be seen as deriving from man, to not be Eve formed from Adam's rib. An admirable goal and one I respect, but not enough reason to change the spelling. A different word would be a better route to take - why not reclaim wife from referring to married women only and return it to its roots as a generic word for woman? Or do the same with queen?

There's also the TERFy (TERF: Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist) aspect of "womon/womyn" - The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival pretty much exists in support of this idea as a TERF space, being for "womyn-born-womyn" only (there's the bigotry against trans people we've come to know and hate). You would think that for all TERFs cry about how trans people reinforce the binary and aren't actually the gender they identify as they wouldn't create a term which binarizes the relationship between women and men to the degree womon does. But they did. Because they don't know how words work, and logic seems in short order as well.


And, just for the sake of completion, let's dismantle that phrase "womyn-born-womyn." Under TERF logic, trans women are not women. Period. TERF logic states that trans women are men, not women at all, while trans men are women (women who seek to access the power of male privilege). The only women, in TERFland, are cis women: those who are "womyn-born-womyn." Yet to say "womyn-born-womyn" implies that there are "womyn" who are born men - which in TERF land can only mean one thing: trans women. Now, this poses a problem for TERFs. To say "womyn-born-womyn" implicitly acknowledges that which they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge: trans women are women. Their understanding of trans women, restricted to an infantile gender binarism where you are either a man or a woman and that's it and it's set in stone from birth, is of course laughable, simplistic, and wrongheaded. They won't respond if you point out that their assumptions are wrong. But you don't need to do that. Just walk them through their own logic. They hamstring themselves with their language. Their logic inexorably leads to one conclusion: trans women are, in actual fact, women (and by virtue of trans women being women, trans men are men). And that will make their heads explode. And we should be trying harder to explode more TERF heads, especially Cathy Brennan's. Fuck you, Cathy Brennan.

By setting up womon as a "man-free" way to refer to women, TERFs only manage to reinstantiate the gender binary. There is no middle ground, nothing but man and womon. For people who claim to understand that the binary is bullshit, they sure don't act like it. If gender is a continuum, something fluid and not binary, setting up womon/woman and man as polar opposites is not the way to go about showing you understand that reality. And doubling up your phrasing in a way designed to exclude trans women doesn't help you if it completely backfires by acknowledging trans women as women. But, TERFs. The intelligence of their position compares unfavorably to that of a jar of mayonnaise. As Ron White says, "You can't fix stupid."

So if the man in the word woman is a concern, that's fine. The word man has changed enough over time that it no longer serves its original role in the word woman anyway- it's primarily there now as an etymology marker and doesn't serve to generalize. But etymology is not definition. My position is that we should avoid changing woman itself - the history of the word is too important to lose, because embedded in the intertwined histories of man and woman we have a portion of the history of masculine supremacy in the English language. If we must stop using the word woman to refer to those we now call women, I favor moving to an entirely different word rather than attempting to change woman somehow. In that case, I think the best we can do is what I said above. We can reclaim words that once meant woman - we can reclaim wife and queen - and maybe try rolling back the clock on them. How successful that would be, I cannot say.


All I can say is woman is a good word. Wonder Wife and Wonder Queen just don't have that delightful combination of alliteration and a trochee-iamb combo that Wonder Woman has. That's how we're supposed to decide what words mean and what words to use, right? Maybe we can just ask Wonder Woman to weigh in on the issue.

That's a fair point, WW. We'll take it under consideration.