The term ‘womyn’ is occasionally used to signify a feminist exodus from male-dominated language. Woman has the suffix -man in it, after all, and wome(y)n no longer exist only as a derivative of man! Eve, born of a male rib, is no longer in style.

However, an assumption about the historically patriarchal nature of language would reasonably require looking at the history of language. ‘Woman’ originally comes from the word wifman where wif refers to her status as a female, and man refers to her status as a human being. ‘Man’, as we know him today, was initially called werman, with the wer referring to his male-ness, and the man, again, referring to the fact that he is a homo sapien.

It turns out ‘woman’ isn’t historically oppressive at all, and ‘werewolf’ is in fact the more sexist term, as it would etymologically be transcribed as a male-wolf (Same with ‘android’, which literally is something that is like a male; andro + oid. The neutral version would be ‘anthroid’). Somewhat ironically, altering the –man part of ‘woman’ would seem to lessen her humanity, rather than embolden it.

Similarly, ‘female’ is not derived from male, but from femella, whereas ‘male’ comes from masle derived from masculus. In addition, ‘history’ is derived from a long series of words that all essentially mean a chronicle of the past, ultimately leading back to the ‘account of an inquiry’ definition from the Greek word historia. It is not actually the masculine-possessive’s story. As it turns out, the western languages were not conceived with patriarchal maliciousness in mind.

Does this mean that feminists are crazy for wanting to change ‘mailman’ to ‘mail carrier’ if the –man part refers to the human being-ness of this mail carrier rather than their gender? Of course not. Language evolves over time. No gay man has ever taken comfort in the fact that they were etymologically called a bundle of sticks. The evolution of ‘man’ from its gender-neutral origins has been murky, and ‘human’ is still used quite uncontroversially, but today it generally means male. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that werman is going to be making a comeback any time soon.

Changing ‘woman’ to ‘womyn’ is still stupid, however, and here’s why: it is not oppressive to refer to a woman as a female human being. Having -man as a suffix to a career could serve to identify its inclination, but wo- on its own is meaningless today, so the man does not alter its meaning (its meaning being ‘female’, remember). If anything, the word has already undergone a feminist revolution. Can you imagine if we still used the root of ‘wife’ to define our women?

This etymological history is not entirely benign, however, and the damage that was caused had nothing to do with the term ‘woman’, but with ‘man’. It all happened back in the late 13th century when werman evolved into ‘man’. It made males the default human being. When we discuss gender and focus only on women, perhaps it is because men lost theirs back during the founding of the Ottoman Empire. I doubt the two are related, but who knows.

Post-script: All my etymology info has come from here.

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