2006/02/21

An Etymology Lesson

Let's check in the Oxford English Dictionary.
'Man' n. I. A human being (irrespective of sex or age). Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now freq. understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.
Now why might this whole 'man'/'woman' distinction be taken to be sexist? Well, there you go, in a nutshell. Wait, there's more:
'Were' n. 1. A male person; a man. Beowulf 993 Fela {th}æra wæs wera and wifa. Ibid. 1352 O{edh}er..on weres wæstmum wræclastas træd.
2. A husband.
So, a werewolf? That's a man-wolf in the male-only sense. The female werewolf is an unusual and modern notion as compared to the origin of the word 'werewolf' (1802, apparently with confusion whether it's to be a 'warwolf' or a 'war bear'). Did you notice any female "Lycans" in Underworld? Strange, you say, this (dangerous) menagerie is all male. Now there seems to be some etymological debate over
'woman' n. I. 1. a. An adult female human being. (The context may or may not have special reference to sex or to adult age
sing. {alpha} c893 ÆLFRED Oros. III. vi. §2 Minutia hatte an wifmon, {th}e on heora wisan sceolde nunne beon. c1000 ÆLFRIC Gen. ii. 22 God..{asg}eworhte {edh}æt rib, {edh}e he {asg}enam of Adame, to anum wifmen.
Judges iv. 22 {Edh}a clipode seo wimman cu{edh}lice him to. c1175 Lamb. Hom. 15 {Ygh}if {th}a la{ygh}e weren nu, nalde na mon mis-don wi{edh} o{edh}re, ne wepmon ne wifmon ne meiden. c1200 Trin. Coll. Hom. 133 {Th}e lif holi wimman sarra.
a1225 Ancr. R. 12 Hwarse wummon liue{edh} o{edh}er mon bi him one. Ibid. 58 {Th}is is a swu{edh}e dredlich word to wummen {th}et scheawe{edh} hire to wepmones eien. a1240 Ureisun in O.E. Hom. I. 191 Nis no wummon iboren {th}et {edh}e beo iliche. 13.. Coer de L. 3863 Man, wumman, every Sarasyn.

b. Generically without article: The female human being; the female part of the human race, the female sex. Hence gen. woman's = womanly, female, feminine.
c950 Lindisf. Gosp. Matt. xix. 4 Masculum et feminam fecit eos, woepen-monn & wifmonn {asg}eworhte hia. c1000 ÆLFRIC Deut. xxii. 5 Ne scryde nan wif hi mid wæpmannes reafe, ne wæpman mid wifmannes reafe.

4. a. A wife. Now only dial. and U.S.
Cf. OLD WOMAN 1b and the corresp. use of man (MAN n.1 8).
c1450 St. Cuthbert (Surtees) 7041 A night be his woman [cum uxore] he lay. 1598 SHAKES. Merry W. II. ii. 305 See the hell of hauing a false woman: my bed shall be abus'd. a1625 FLETCHER Nice Valour II. i, A man can in his lifetime make but one woman, But he can make his fifty Queanes a month. 1693 DRYDEN Juvenal vi. 295 Prepare thy Neck and put it in the Yoke: But for no mercy from thy Woman look.
The question becomes whether 'woer' or 'were', in the sense of masculine deriving from the OE is to be contrasted with 'wy'/'wu'/'wo' in the sense of feminine, or rather to be contrasted with 'wy'/'wif' as in wife. That is, "male-human" vs. "female-human" (and let's not even discuss who's allowed to "beget": 'male' n. A. adj. I. That belongs to the sex which can beget offspring (contrasted with female); characteristic of or relating to this sex.) or "husband-human" vs. "wife-human" or some combination thereof. How you parse it up will to some extent be an arbitrary division between the way in which power relations divided up stereotypically male from female roles in the society from which the language derives and the actual classificatory status of the words themselves.

In light of this, I propose we start using the word 'wereman' (pronounced WHIR-man). If you'd been wondering why I've kept quiet on recent posts this was one reason--I know it will annoy him to no end---and the other is that it's easier just to let him put his foot in his mouth all under his own power. What I'd hope you take away from this is an appreciation of the way unconscious linguistic currents can affect our thoughts and thereby our acts.

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