According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the word lord can be traced back to the Old English word hlāfweard meaning “loaf-ward” or “bread-keeper,” reflecting the Germanic tribal custom of a chieftain providing food for his followers. Likewise, lady is from the Old English word hlœfdīge and referred to the woman in charge of the household production of food, e.g., kneading of said bread.
As our culture moved into wholly agrarian-based urban societies, land holdings and titles came to denote wealth, authority, and nobility. As individuals rose in status, so did their titles, like Lord and Lady. Where wifman, meaning woman, is the word from which our lawful term wife is derived, so husband, meaning “tiller of the soil,” has come to refer to the legal male head of a household. Such language, revealing in its history, is constantly evolving.
Popular but Mistaken
There is a thing called “folk” or “popular” etymology where one overlays prejudices or preferences on language to justify contemporary ideas or concerns. For example, the “son” in person has no relationship to a male child. Likewise, the “his” in history, from the Greek word historia meaning “to seek knowledge,” has no etymological connection to a male-oriented view of past events, i.e., his story.* Old English hire or her, is the third person singular form of heo or she, with the absolute form being hers.
Another example of folk etymology is the misconception that the words womb and woman are related. Womb is from the Old English word wombe or wambe meaning “stomach” and, besides having no gender specificity, referred to either human or animal organs that sometimes included the intestines and the heart.
Next, let’s take a closer look at the nouns male, female, man, woman, and human.
Man or mann derives from Proto-Germanic and meant “person,” referring to both men and women. To be gender specific, wifman and werman were used for a female person and male person respectively. The “wer” in werman survives to this day in the word werewolf, meaning “man-wolf.”
Over time, wifman lost the ‘f’ and became first wimman, then wumman, and finally woman. After the Norman Conquest, the ‘wer’ disappeared from werman to become man, a gender-specific noun referring to males but still maintained the “mankind” inflection meaning “all humans.”
Surprisingly, the word world has its origins in a male-specific etymology. The Anglo-Saxon word werold means “age of man” derived from the compound wer (man) + ald (age). Its definition, on the other hand, is more closely related to a gender-neutral “human existence” or “affairs of life.”
Now, what about male and female? Both of these words came into the English language via Old French. Male is from the Latin masculus, meaning “male,” and was shortened to masle in Old French. Over time, the ‘s’ was dropped and the word became male. Female is derived from the Latin diminutive femina, became femelle in Old French, and finally female in English. In short, the “male” in female has no relationship to the word male meaning “dude.”
Finally, human comes from the Latin word humanus and the Latin root homo, meaning “human being.” It transformed into humaine in Old French and Middle English, and finally human and humane in Modern English. Once again, the word human has no etymological connection with the words male or man in a gender-specific sense.
You might also be interested in the peculiarity of the word widow, the explosion of acronyms in the past two centuries, or the fact that un-friend is actually quite old!
*The Herstory Archives is an archive of Lesbian history and literature founded in the 1970s. The use of “her” in the organization’s name, while clever, is not going to castrate the canons of history nor does it defile any linguistic integrities. Give the women their historical due and move on.
See the previous or next Fun Facts About English.
If you’re not using task cards in class, you’re missing out on an excellent center or whole class activity that turns repetition into fun! Check out all the task cards available in Donald’s English Classroom!