man / woman
Two basic words in the language are man and woman. Naturally given the fundamental nature of these words, we would expect these to have Old English roots and this is indeed the case. All the Germanic languages use the word man (in some form or another) to mean both a human being and a male person. English is no exception. Bald’s Leechbook, a manuscript dating to c.900 uses man in the sense of a female human being:
Gif wife to swiþe offlowe sio monað gecynd, genim niwe horses tord, lege on hate gleda, læt reocan swiþe betweoh þa þeoh up under þæt hrægl, þæt se mon swæte swiþe.
(If a woman has a strong monthly flow from her genitals, take a fresh horse turd, place it on a hotly glowing coal, and let the smoke slowly rise up between the thighs and under the clothing of the man who is strongly bleeding.)
Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints (c.1000) uses it in the male sense:
He...sæde hyre gewislice hwæt heo man ne wæs.
(He...said gently that they were certainly not men.)
But in Old English there was another pair of words that was often used to make the distinction between male and female, wer and wif. The Old English words wer and wif. Wer disappeared from the language in the 13th century, surviving only as the initial element in the word werewolf, literally a man-wolf. Wer has its roots in the Indo-European *wiro, which also gives us, via the Latin, virility and virtue. In contrast, Anglo Saxons would use man as a synonym for wer and to mean humans in general.
The female counterpart wif survives today as wife, but to the Anglo-Saxons the word meant any woman, not just a spouse. You can see this usage in the word alewife, a woman who brewed and sold beer, and in midwife. In addition, Old English also had wæpman, literally meaning a human with a weapon and used to refer to a male human (weapon was an Old English euphemism for the penis), and wifman. Wifman survives today as woman.
Fela þæra wæs wera and wifa.
(Many there were, men and women.)
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton