By Dr Oliver Tearle
The question ‘what is a woman?’ has been widely discussed and debated in recent times, given the ongoing arguments – which have entered mainstream politics – surrounding gender and self-identification. But the question of where the word woman comes from is also of interest, since, as is so often the case with everyday words whose etymologies we take for granted, the origins of the term ‘woman’ contains several surprising details.
Indeed, there are two things we might think we know, but perhaps don’t, surrounding the origins of the word ‘woman’. And it all comes down to the two words which were combined to create that now-ubiquitous term.
The word ‘woman’, etymologically speaking, is 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. However, although we may think we know what the words ‘wife’ and ‘man’ mean, neither of them meant quite the same thing over a thousand years ago, when the word ‘woman’ first emerged.
Let’s start with ‘wife’ or, in Old English, wīf. Although ‘wife’ now refers to a married woman specifically, and has been used in this sense since pre-Norman times, the word was also often used to refer to women, without reference to their marital status.
Then, the word ‘wife’ came to mean ‘the female head of a household’, and then, in the Middle Ages, a woman who sold a particular commodity. This sense of ‘wife’ survives, albeit only in historical novels, in terms like ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife’, although one example – ‘midwife’ – is still in widespread use.
As for the word ‘man’, that has undergone a narrowing of meaning since its initial appearance over a millennium ago. It originally meant simply ‘person’, and could refer to either sex. A similar thing happened to ‘girl’, which initially meant simply ‘child’ when the word was first recorded in the fourteenth century.
So ‘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.
Because ‘woman’ is derived ultimately from ‘man’ (or at least the second part of it is), feminists in the 1970s sought to alter the spelling of the word so that it was no longer ‘reliant’ on man. So ‘womyn’ was proposed as an alternative spelling in 1975, the same year that ‘wimmin’ was put forward as a new spelling of the plural ‘women’. Neither took on, of course: politically motivated attempts to force language changes are usually doomed to end in failure.
A similar fate is likely to befall ‘womxn’, if it hasn’t already: this term was first used in an early internet Usenet group in 1991, and its aim was to be more inclusive of more marginalised groups who felt ‘woman’ carried too much historical baggage to reflect their experience of womanhood.
However, as the OED also notes, ‘womxn’ is perceived as exclusionary for some women: the dictionary cites a 2020 Twitter post in which a trans woman states that she is ‘fully a woman’ and doesn’t need another term to describe who she is.
Let’s go back a thousand years to the origins of ‘woman’ in ‘wife-man’. What happened to the f of wīfman? That was beginning to disappear from the word even before the Old English period had given way to Middle English in the twelfth century. Because of the influence of the w sound, the i became an o, giving us woman. (This may help to explain why, in the plural, the o of ‘women’ is voiced as a flat i sound: ‘wimmin’.)
But it would not be until the end of the Middle Ages, as John Ayto notes in his informative Dictionary of Word Origins, that ‘woman’ would fully supplant the other two leading terms for a female person, ‘wife’ (in the non-marital sense) and ‘quean’.
Once ‘quean’ no longer simply denoted ‘woman’ – that role having been taken exclusively by the word ‘woman’ itself – it survived, but was used to refer to a bold or impudent woman and, eventually, a prostitute. That word is distantly related to ‘queen’ – it’s thought they’re ultimately from the same Indo-European root – though there may have been more divergence between them in the Middle Ages than their similar appearance and sound would suggest.
The homophone ‘queen’ originally meant anybody’s wife, rather than specifically the wife of a king, or a female ruler in her own right. That spelling of ‘queen’ survives in other contexts as the name for the female of a particular species: a female cat, for instance, is known as a queen.