Wer and Wyf, Man and Woman

By Maeve Maddox

In Old English, the word man had the meaning of “human being” or “person,” male or female.

Note: Old English is the earliest form of English, brought to Great Britain in the fifth century by Germanic settlers. The first literary works in Old English date from the seventh century.

In OE, the word man occurs in proverbs in the sense of “one,” “a person” or “people”:

Nē sceal man tō ǣr forht nē tō ǣr fægen: A person shouldn’t be too soon fearful nor too soon glad

The usual OE word for “an adult male person” was wer. Man didn’t start being used in that sense until late in the OE period (c. 1000). Wer continued into Middle English, but by the late thirteenth century had been replaced by man.

Wer survives into modern English as the combining form seen in the first syllable of werewolf: “a person who, according to medieval superstition, is transformed or is capable of transforming himself at times into a wolf.”

The general meaning of man to mean human person of either gender survives in modern English in such words as manslaughter and mankind. The latter is being superseded by the word humankind in the belief that the man- of mankind excludes women. Its fixed legal use will probably prevent manslaughter from being replaced by humanslaughter.

The Old English word for a female person, married or unmarried, was wyf.

The meaning “female spouse” developed within the OE period, but the general sense of woman, married or unmarried, continued. In the 18th century, one definition of wife was “a woman of humble rank or of low employment,” a sense that remains in the words fishwife and alewife. Used figuratively, the term fishwife has acquired the negative connotation of “a scurrilously abusive woman.”

The sense of “women in general” is at work in the expression “old wives’ tale”: “an unlikely story told and believed by women a widely held or traditional belief now thought to be incorrect or erroneous.” For example, a very common old wives’ tale is the admonition to feed a cold and starve a fever.

Note: The tale, not the women, is “old.” Inherent in this expression is the notion that women are more gullible than men. Perhaps we could coin the expression “old husbands’ tale” for the stereotypical notions that men pass on about women. For example, “Women lack intellect,” “women are more emotional and jealous than men,” “women are not suited to serve in public office,” “women lack courage,” etc. Husband, like wife, has meanings apart from married status. Meanings of husband include “tiller of the soil, manager of a household,” and “steward.”

It’s interesting that today’s general word for “adult female person,” woman, originated when wyf (“female person”) was joined to man (“human being”) to produce the combination wyfman (“female human being”). The modern form woman developed from a plural of wyfman that did not include the /f/ sound or spelling: wimman.

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5 Responses to “Wer and Wyf, Man and Woman”

  • Rick Taubold

    What’s interesting is that both “man” and “wer” survive in the modern German language. “Wer” means “who” and “man” is a sort of indefinite pronoun meaning “one” or “you” in sentences such as “One could say that” or “You never know what might happen.” The German word “Mann” translates to our English for “man.” Sometimes this confuses students learning German.

  • Tony

    Wouldn’t the male version of old wifes tale be old wers tale?

  • venqax

    It strikes me as a bit odd to say, ”In Old English, the word man had the meaning of “human being” or “person,” male or female.”
    It still does, and not just in such words as manslaughter and mankind. but in The Journey of Man, the Ascent of Man, the Mismeasure of Man, a man’s word is his bond, man-made artifacts, manning your station, one man one vote, man vs nature, etc. Being inaccurate about modern usage does not aid anything.

    “Perhaps we could coin the expression “old husbands’ tale” for the stereotypical notions that men pass on about women. For example, “Women lack intellect,” “women are more emotional and jealous than men,” “women are not suited to serve in public office,” “women lack courage,” etc.”
    Except that traditionally many women held these attitudes, too. “Old wives’ tales” were not so-called only by men. Self-consciously pushing an agenda through manipulation of the basic language is characteristic of governments, and not usually the democratic, freedom-conscious kind.

    It’s ironic that “wer”– a word that did originally mean males specifically, and not females, has come to mean humans in general. We hardly ever have wyfwolf attacks anymore, even in the movies.

  • Agua Caliente

    This DWT reminded me that I am indeed grateful to my educators and their curricula for having taught me ways to avoid sexism (perhaps better stated as “promote equality”) in writing. Although some of the structures sounded awkward or stilted at first, for the most part I now see that written/printed/electronic communication has evolved and helped change the image evoked by many expressions to one of gender neutrality—almost always for the better. All power to all the people, if I may paraphrase a platitude from the 1960s.

  • Anne-Marie

    Imagine all of the people who have wasted time and effort being offended by and promulgating erroneous beliefs about the word “man”. They should have listened to King Solomon when he said, “Be not wise in thine own eyes…” But they were probably too busy being offended by King James.

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