A few days ago, a friend of mine asked why we use women to refer to adult female humans.

I think this is a legit­i­mate ques­tion. It’s cer­tain­ly one I have heard before. I have seen sim­i­lar ques­tions asked in fem­i­nist cir­cles because of the appar­ent impli­ca­tion that women are a part of men rather than their own indi­vid­u­als.

On the sur­face it cer­tain­ly seems as if women or woman is a deriv­a­tive of men or man, and it’s actu­al­ly true, but not true in the way you might think.

The word woman is derived from the Old Eng­lish word wif­mann, which in turn has as its root word the Old Eng­lish word mann or monn, which has result­ed in today’s man.

This is where things get inter­est­ing because mann didn’t mean an adult male human; it meant human, peri­od. The Old Eng­lish word for an adult male human was actu­al­ly wer (yes, the same word used in terms like were­wolf and were­cat). For some rea­son, wer grew out of favour and mann even­tu­al­ly came to refer to just men rather than all humans.

When it comes down to it then, woman actu­al­ly means adult female human. Tech­ni­cal­ly, it’s not a sex­ist term after all, at least not his­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing.

That being said, one could prob­a­bly make a case for sex­ism regard­less giv­en the appro­pri­a­tion of the gen­der­less term mann by men, but that’s anoth­er post alto­geth­er.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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