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Tuesday, June 7


Thought you guys migh like to know this one...

Two basic words in the language are man and woman. Naturally, we would expect these to have Old English roots and this is indeed the case. All the Germanic languages use the word man (in some form or another) to mean both a human being and a male person. English is no exception, although in Old English there was a distinction in common usage.

The Old English words wer and wif meant male and female humans respectively. Wer is gone from the language, except in the word werewolf, which literally means man-wolf. Wer has its roots in the Indo-European *wiros, which also gives us, via the Latin, virility and virtue. In contrast, Anglo Saxons would use man as a synonym for wer and to mean humans in general.

The female counterpart wif survives today as wife, but to the Anglo-Saxons the word meant any woman, not just a spouse. You can see this usage in the word alewife, a woman who brewed and sold beer, and in midwife. In addition, Old English also had wæpman, literally meaning a human with a weapon and used to refer to a male human (weapon was an Old English euphemism for the penis), and wifman. Wifman survives today as woman.

While Anglo-Saxons could use man to mean a male of the species, they commonly used it to mean a human being of either sex. Over time, however, use of wer faded in favor of man, and wif specialized to mean a married woman. This left us with the words man and woman.

(Source: word origins)


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