It Took One Thousand Years For Women To Stop Being Men

Students learn that the main tool for a keener understanding of our species is a dictionary, more accurately an etymological dictionary.

I tend to get blank stares. An etymological dictionary is a source for the original meaning of language we use every day. When we look up the etymology of a commonly used word, it is like listening in on a conversation in a romanesque abbey in France or a thatched-roof hut in Anglo Saxon England 11th century. It is why I say it took one thousand years for women to stop being men.

The word “man” is an Old English (up to around 1150) word for “human being,” and referred to males and females. It had no gender distinction. Man meant ‘human race’ until things began to change in the year 1200. If you saw someone on the street and yelled “hey man,” it would be as if you cried “hey, human being,” today.

The word man comes down to us from the Proto Indo-European root word man (the mother tongue of the world’s most widely spoken languages), and it means “to think.” You see the derivative in words like a mentor, one who advises. The Latin term homo sapiens is the closest equivalent, ‘humans who think.”

Sometimes more than others, right?

By the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era (1001 to 2000), the world population grew from 310 million in 1000 to about 6 billion in 2000. A need to distinguish gender for various cultural, religious, and practical reasons began to take shape. It influenced language just as those things do today. That was when man took on the sense of “male.”

A woman became wīfmann, meaning “female human.” Males became wer. Perhaps the reason is that wif and wer made for a nice calling card. Then around the 13th-century wer disappeared almost entirely except for its usage in Old English words like “werewolf,” literally “man-wolf.”

Wifmann evolved into the word woman, and wif turned into wife. Compare the Dutch word for wife, vrouw, taken from vrouwmens, which literally translates to woman-man. Aspiring linguists will find a close cousin in the German frau. You can hear the silent footsteps of language trying to keep up with society.

The recognition of a married woman required a name for unmarried women. The Old English word wif was replaced by quean, meaning “female human being.” That is how we get Queen Elizabeth.

Although we still use the word man universally, as in mankind and manslaughter, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that it was used almost exclusively to refer to males.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award; ex-publisher Forbes

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