Wer and Wyf, Man and Woman
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 Wer continued into Middle English, but by the late thirteenth century had been replaced by man.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 The latter is being superseded by the word humankind in the belief that the man- of mankind excludes women.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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