In honour of International Woman’s Day
I have seen some peculiar claims circulating on the internet that “woman” either derives from “womb-man” or that it is “woman-man”. The former is frankly laughable, and the latter is a more understandable mistake, but one that conflates the modern word “man” with the Old English word “man” and assumes that the meaning is the same.
The modern word with the /o/ sound in the singular developed during the Middle English period. Prior to that, it was /i/, the vowel that is preserved in the plural. It comes from Old English, and is made up of two elements: wif and man. The first part, wif, meant “female”, and the second meant, not “man” in the sense of “male human being” that we have today, but “person, human”, and was used equally for both sexes. There was another form in Old English that meant “male person”, and that was wer, sometimes also teamed up with the gender neutral man; wer-man, in much the same way as wifman. The male form was lost over time, with only a last remnant of it still to be found in “werewolf”, but wifman remained and gradually developed to become woman.
So where did wif come from? Well, it is Germanic, and we can see a cognate in modern German Weib, signifying “woman, female”. Both of these come from Proto-Germanic *wībam, meaning “woman”. Its origins from there further back in time are obscure. The two main theories are that it could be from Proto-Indo-European root *weip-, meaning “twist, wrap”, through the idea of “veiled person”, or from *ghwibh-, a root meaning “shame” or “pudenda”.
There seem to be several problems with these theories. Firstly, looking at *weip- , there is no reason to suppose that the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language veiled women, nothing to associate this root with women in particular, other than later prejudices and preconceptions being applied to an earlier time. Indeed, all archaeological evidence points to the contrary. Early art depicting women has not showed them to be veiled at all, and in fact there is no evidence to suggest that women were covered until after these words were established in their meaning as “woman”, which would post-date any connection between the meanings “wrap/ conceal/ cover” and “woman”, thereby undermining this theory.
In the second instance, there are only two proposed derivatives of *ghwibh-; the Germanic root signifying “woman” and a word from Tocharian, an extinct language, kip, meaning “female pudenda”. It seems to me quite a stretch of imagination to assume that “woman” and “pudenda” must have derived from a word meaning “shame”; again, I believe that this is later prejudice being applied retrospectively. There are no cognates in other languages meaning anything similar, no other linguistic evidence to point to this meaning, and in none of the proposed derivatives are there clear overtones of shame. And as for it meaning “pudenda”, again, there is only the one example of this word. Equally, both the Tocharian and Germanic words could have developed from a root meaning “female”; it could be the Tocharian that diverged rather than the Germanic, or indeed both could come from a different root entirely. The Tocharian is the only link to pudenda, and there is no compelling reason to suppose that this was the original meaning of the Germanic root too.
Going back to our Old English word, wif, it is not hard to see the other modern cognate; wife. This evolved from meaning more generally “woman” and became more specific as “female spouse”, possibly through its link with the Old English verb gewifian. This meant “to take a wife”. It is not to be confused with “marry”, as obviously this is a word that may be applied to both genders, whereas the original sense of gewifian was for a man to take a wife. For the woman, on the contrary, there was another verb, weddian, which developed into the modern “wed”, and meant “promise, pledge” and ultimately, “marry”.