His and hers, wyf and wer

Posted by on September 08, 2011

Our final guest post in a somewhat longer gender English month comes from freelance lexicographer and editor Janet Gough.

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A 1981 postcard published by The Women’s Press presents us with the following predicament:

Dear Sirs • man to man • manpower • craftsman
working men • the thinking man • the man in the street
fellow countrymen • the history of mankind
one-man show • man in his wisdom • statesman
forefathers • masterful • masterpiece • old masters
the brotherhood of man • Liberty Equality Fraternity
sons of free men • faith of our fathers • god the father
god the son • yours fraternally • amen • words fail me

Thirty years later, do words continue to fail us? The English language is still without acceptable gender-neutral replacements for many of the above terms. For some of them, female alternatives are available (woman to woman; the history of womankind), for a few there are ‘both-gender’ terms (Dear Sir/Madam is an accepted alternative formal term of address when the sex of the intended recipient is unknown), and one or two have been largely supplanted by lexical alternatives (personnel for manpower). But what of the others? France’s national motto has not yet granted equality to Sisterhood alongside Fraternity, despite the fact that Marianne, the idealized embodiment of Liberty, is herself female.

As Aneta Naumoska pointed out in a recent post, there have been many attempts to redress the balance by advocating alternative forms that will ‘free women from their position of being lexically obscure’, with variants such as herstory for history – a term which goes beyond feminizing the lexis per se, aiming as it does to redirect the entire focus of historical research away from its traditionally male-dominated perspective.

In fact, the word history in itself is not a product of an etymological gender bias. The his in history is entirely unrelated to the masculine possessive pronoun his, the word being derived instead from Latin historia, meaning simply (a narrative of) learning through research or inquiry. If we were, however, to propose a new term for history based on the false morphology of his + story, then perhaps hystery would be appropriate, its etymology drawn from the Greek hustera, (hyster-), womb. At the same time we could perhaps find a less misogynist replacement for hysteria, which comes from the same Greek root, the term being, in its original sense, a medical condition characterized by a complete lack of control over one’s emotions or actions, which was originally believed to be an exclusively feminine ailment caused by a malfunction of the womb.

But what of the word woman itself, together with its plural women?

In an attempt to address the perceived sexism inherent in the second morpheme man, various substitute spellings for woman/women have made their appearance in recent years (womon, womyn, and wimmin: of these, only the latter seems to have gained widespread currency).

Ironically, from an etymological point of view, it is not the second morpheme of woman that should be construed as the sexist one. In Old English, man simply denoted a person, of either sex. The prefix wo in woman derives from Old English wyf [= a female human being; hence modern English wife]. Like its counterpart, the prefix wer [= a male human being], wyf was added to the stem man only when it was necessary to distinguish between the sexes. Over time however, the wer prefix was dropped when referring specifically to a male of the species, so that in effect, the word man became both hypernym man – a human being – and hyponym man – a male human being. The male of the species thus became the canonical form, or archetype, whilst the female, still tied to its wo prefix, a subordinate, derivative form.

Perhaps if women are to gain true equality, in language as well as in society, the way forward is not to replace but to reclaim the word man, in its original, gender-neutral sense – and to find a new prefix to specify the male of the species.

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Comments (3)
  • Janet:
    The only survivor of “wer” in English seems to be werewolf, and “wyf” has transmogrified into a societal designation. Perhaps we all need Orwellian groupthink re-education to solve the problem. Seriously, the social changes in the last fifty years were too long in coming, but they did, or at least, started. Linguisic change takes a long time; the indecision of how to refer to a person of largely-African ancestry is a case in point. I tend to be an optimist; one of these days we’ll come up with a solution.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 28th September, 2011
  • Marc:
    There is some doubt as to whether the ‘wer’ in ‘werewolf’ has the same root as the ‘wer’ in Old English ‘werman’ [cf OED entry for ‘werewolf’: “The first element has usually been identified with Old English wer man were n.1, but the form were- in place of wer- (compare however were- and wergild wergeld n.), and the variants in war- , var- , makes this somewhat doubtful.”].
    Your Orwellian reference is interesting as I was thinking about this as I was writing the blog post – ironic that many of the ‘Newspeak’ terms in ‘1984’, which satirized the manipulation and artificial modification of language for political ends, have found a place in our modern English parlance – Thought Police, and of course Big Brother – to name just a couple.

    Posted by Janet Gough on 28th September, 2011
  • Janet: Thanks for the interesting blog post. I recently purchased a sailing yacht named Seawyf. After a little research I was sure “wyf” meant woman (or perhaps wife, mistress, etc.) and you have confirmed that. What I haven’t been able to determine is the pronunciation. Is it like “wife” or “wiff”?

    Posted by Alan Smith on 2nd October, 2011
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