English

The History of the Word ‘Woman’

Both "woman" and "queen" have interesting origins.

2 min read

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 little ironic, with all this in mind, to think about the origin of the word “woman” because it’s a combination of the words “wife” and “man.”

You can see this if you look back at the Old English spellings of this word. Spelling wasn’t consistent back then, so we see some variations: wifmon, wifmanna, and wifmone, for example. 

But they’re all saying the same thing. An adult, female woman is defined as “a man’s wife.” No two ways about it.

Over time, the words evolved. By the Middle English period, we see “wimman” and “wommon” being used. 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.” That was in his 1806 Compendious Dictionary of the English Language dictionary, but it didn’t catch on.

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,” it’s 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 “wife” and “man.” That meaning disappeared over time, and today “woman” simply means “an adult female.”


Sources

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).

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The History of the Word ‘Woman’
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