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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