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History of the Word Man

Etymology is a study that has always fascinated me. Languages are in a constant state of flux, with words being added and changing meaning constantly (much to the chagrin of stodgy English pedants). This leads to inconsistencies which color a language, giving it interest but also confusion.

A study of the word "Man" is particularly interesting. It is typically used to refer to adult male humans, but it has antiquated meanings which muddy the definition a bit. For example the somewhat archaic phrase "to love our fellow man," is understood to include women, children, and generally all of humanity. Another confusing use of "man" is when makes its appearance in the words "human", "woman", and "mankind"?

To explain these, let's go way back into ye olden days. Back when "ye" was actually written "þe" but pronounced like "the" anyway. Say around 700AD or so. This was about when Béowulf was written¹. If you have never looked at Béowulf, it is written like this: "næs Béowulf ðaér." It is different enough that you actually have to translate it into modern English. That phrase means "Béowulf wasn't there."²

Back in this time, the word "man" still existed (and was even generally spelled the same way), but it's meaning was much more general. It was used to refer to humanity in general. It was with this sense of the word in mind that the word "mancynn" (which evolved into the word "mankind") was formed. Over time the word "man" has morphed to its current and convoluted meaning. So a "Men's room" is not a room for everyone, but both men and women can "man a ship."

So if "man" previously meant any human, it is reasonable to wonder if there was a word which unambiguously meant a male human. It turns out that there was. In Béowulf we read about people eulogising a dead king. In Old English, this was written: "ymb wer sprecan," meaning "speak about the man."³ The word "wer" means a male man. The word "wer" actually still lives on in Modern English in the word "Werewolf" which simply meant "man-wolf."

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This leaves the word "woman" to puzzle over. Again in Béowulf we can see the phrase "fréolíc wíf" which means "noble woman." In Old English, the word "wif" meant "woman." In late Old English, it was combined with "man" to form "wifman" and evolved to be "wiman", which we decided to spell and say as "woman". This is why the word "women," is pronounced as "wimen" (we kept the pronunciation but not the spelling).⁴

The word "wif" has not faded from our language though. We simply added an "-e" to the end and made it the word "wife." So when someone calls something an "Old wives' tale," it refers to all old women, regardless of marital status. Same with the word "midwife."

Speaking of marriage, it really makes you wonder about the origin of the old wedding phrase: "I now pronounce you man and wife." That phrase always seemed odd to me, but to an Old English speaker it may have seemed even stranger: "I now pronounce you person and woman." It seems almost sure to me that the words "man" and "wife" had slightly different meanings back when that phrase was invented.

It must be pointed out that these words actually go much farther back than just Old English. They go back to Proto-Indo-European--a theorized language which is extinct now, but its influences are felt in many languages across the globe. It dates back to at least 4000BC.⁵ This shared root language is why the French word "mannequin" has "man" in it and why the Latin word "vir" means the same things as "wer."

Increasingly there have been calls to make language more gender inclusive. Perhaps a side benefit of this will be to make it more consistent.


[1] The actual date of composition is unknown as Béowulf was originally passed on orally.

[2] "næs" is a third person past tense of the verb "to not be" and "ðaér" means "there". The letter "ð" has been replaced by "th" in Modern English. So we would write it as "thaer" which honestly looks like a better spelling than "there" anyway.

[3] Note the word "sprecan" and it's similarity to the modern German word "sprechen." Old English has many such close similarities to German.

[4] Spelling wasn't a big deal back then anyway. You wrote out the word however it sounded. Spelling-bees were an "everybody's a winner" sort of affair.

[5] It is really hard to estimate how old PIE is since it is prehistoric and we don't have any direct record of it.

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