top of page

Etymology of The Word 'Woman'

Some people think the word 'woman' is a compound of the words 'womb' and 'man.' Not so.

Old book

Actually, it’s a compound of 'wife' and 'man,' a combination that can be traced back to Old English, 1,500 years ago. That combination isn't as discriminatory as it sounds because when Old English was first being spoken there were two distinct words for men and women: “wer” meant “adult male,” and “wif” meant “adult female.” There was a third word, “man,” which simply meant “person” or “human being.”

These short three letter words could be combined as follows: “wer” plus “man” (in the form of “waepman”) meant “adult male person.” And “Wif” plus “man” (“wifman”) meant “adult female person.”

Spelling wasn’t consistent back then, but by the Middle English period (1100 to 1500), usage standardized into “wimman” and “wommon.” And by the 1600s, the versions we know today were finally fixed: woman and women.

The original Old English word “wif,” meaning “adult female,” persisted, but in a different form. Its the word we know today (with an additional letter) for a married woman.

And the Old English word for “adult male” evolved into a simplified form. The compound word “weapman” melted into the simple word we use today: “man.”

And let's not forget that there was once another word for an adult woman: “quaen.” This word has the same Indo-European base as the Sanskrit “jani,” and the Ancient Greek “gynē.”

Although “quaen” started out as meaning “a female,” its meaning degraded over time. By the early Middle English period, it was a term of abuse, meaning a bold or impudent woman - or a prostitute.

At the same time, “quaen” evolved into the word “queen,” which we use today to refer to the female ruler of an independent state. That’s a pretty big dichotomy.

Maybe the lesson to take from all this is that the role of women in society has always been complex. Whatever the case, your tidbit for today is this: the word “woman” was originally a compound of the Old English words for “woman” and “human being.” Sounds about right!

bottom of page