The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Female’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

What connects the word ‘female’ with ‘male’, etymologically speaking? How did these corresponding terms come about? The origins of the word ‘female’ are worthy of further inspection, because, as ever on this blog, there are some surprising facts to uncover in the etymology and history of ‘female’.

We’ve previously discussed the interesting history of the word ‘woman’, which comes from two Old English words meaning ‘wife-man’. ‘Woman’, when it was first recorded in Anglo-Saxon writing, was rendered as either wīfmon or wīfman. ‘Woman’, which came from two words meaning ‘wife’ and ‘man’, originally meant ‘female-person’, or, if you like, ‘woman-person’, if that doesn’t sound too circular and tautological.

But where did ‘female’ itself come from? The word ‘female’ may look as if it’s from the same root as the corresponding word ‘male’, but in fact the spelling of ‘female’ was altered in order to create parity between the spellings of the two words.

This occurred in the Middle Ages: there are instances of ‘male’ and ‘female’ rhyming with each other from the late fourteenth century, indicating that the pronunciation of ‘female’ had shifted to match that of ‘male’ by then.

Our modern word ‘female’ came from the Old French femelle, which was itself derived from the Latin fēmella (meaning ‘woman’ or ‘girl’). This word was, in turn, a diminutive form of the Latin femina (‘woman’), which gives us the word ‘feminine’. By contrast, ‘male’ is from the Latin masculus, from mas, meaning ‘male person’ or ‘man’.

‘Female’ has been in use as a derogatory term for a man’s effeminate appearance or behaviour, or to refer disparagingly to work or actions more suited to women than men, since Elizabethan times. In Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage (1594), Aeneas remarks, ‘I may not dure this female drudgery.’ And in Shakespeare’s Richard II, from a year later, Scroop comments:

boys, with women’s voices,
Strive to speak big and clap their female joints
In stiff unwieldy arms against thy crown.

A common phrase involving the word ‘female’ is ‘the female of the species’. This expression has been around since the late eighteenth century, while Rudyard Kipling gave us ‘the female of the species is more deadly than the male’ in a 1911 poem:

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.


And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern – shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

As a noun – for instance, referring to ‘females’ or ‘a female’ instead of ‘women’ – ‘female’ has been in use since the fifteenth century.

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