Origin of widower
Posted: 23 June 2013 08:10 AM   [ Ignore ]
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My wife passed away last year and that means when I’m filling out forms or answering questions I must describe myself as a “widower”.  I hate that term - it sounds like it means someone who makes someone else into a widow, i.e., a widow maker, e.g., someone who goes about murdering women’s husbands.  If I certify you I’m a certifier, if I denounce you I’m a denouncer, if I mystify you I’m a mystifier, if I exploit you I am an exploiter.  And in each case you become whatever the verb implies, i.e., certified, denounced, mystified and exploited. 

The only explanation I’ve seen for “widower” on the web seemed rather convoluted and reaching - professional and trade roles often ended in “-er” (e.g., painter, builder, lawyer, professor, etc) and since only men had jobs and professions in the old days, “er” became a signifier for male.  I agree that men had the professions and vocations but it’s not clear that “er” was a uniquely male ending (women could be homemakers, housekeepers, lovers, sisters, mothers, etc).  When women did enter the workforce, with a few exceptions (aviatrix, actress), they generally got the “er” ending - writer, painter, protester, worker, riveter, etc for their new roles.  Furthermore, the verb portion of occupations like painter, builder, farmer, professor describes something you do, not something you are.  In other words, using that logic, “widow” is something I do, not something I am., which brings us back to the original problem.

So I’m unconvinced by the above explanation.  Would anyone care to be my enlightener?  I’ll be your thanker in advance.

[ Edited: 23 June 2013 08:16 AM by plnelson ]
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Posted: 23 June 2013 10:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The -er suffix does indeed usually denote one who performs an action or practices a profession. But traditionally the suffix has denoted a male, with -ess, -trix, -ster, and a few other suffixes used for women who performed such roles. The use of -er to refer to women is a relatively recent usage. (Despite their spelling, sister and mother are not formed by root + -er. Housekeeper originally referred to the man who was in charge of the servants. Homemaker is a nineteenth century coinage.)

Originally, widow referred to both women and men who lost a spouse, although it was used more often to refer to women. (Such women were more likely to be defined by their lack of husband, while men would be defined by their profession.) So widow acquired a female connotation. To correct this, widower was coined in the fourteenth century. The first citation in the OED is from Piers Plowman. The form could have been influenced by the Middle High German witewære as well.

There are a handful of other -er words that refer to one’s state rather than the actions one performs, such as villager, cottager, outsider. These are all later, appearing near the beginning of the sixteenth century. (Outsider is surprisingly late, with the OED’s first cite coming from a letter by Jane Austen in 1800.) Even later, the -er suffix began to be used to denote one’s place of origin, as in New Yorker.

So widower is unusual, but not unique. It was the first of a small trend of words to use the -er suffix in this way.

[ Edited: 23 June 2013 10:24 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 28 June 2013 08:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thanks, Dave, that was very helpful!

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