Posted by: episystechpubs | January 20, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Wer and Wyf

Today’s article is from Daily Writing Tips. I cut a bit out to save time and because I started getting bored reading about fishwives, but the full article is available by clicking here.

Wer and Wyf, Man and Woman

In Old English, the word man had the meaning of “human being” or “person,” male or female.

Note: Old English is the earliest form of English, brought to Great Britain in the fifth century by Germanic settlers. The first literary works in Old English date from the seventh century.

In OE, the word man occurs in proverbs in the sense of “one,” “a person,” or “people”:

Nē sceal man tō ǣr forht nē tō ǣr fægen.
A person shouldn’t be too soon fearful nor too soon glad. [KC – I’d be more likely to translate this Old English as “Don’t steal a person’s Fahrvergnügen.”]

The usual OE word for “an adult male person” was wer. Man didn’t start being used in that sense until late in the OE period (c. 1000). Wer continued into Middle English, but by the late thirteenth century had been replaced by man.

Wer survives into modern English as the combining form seen in the first syllable of werewolf: “a person who, according to medieval superstition, is transformed or is capable of transforming himself at times into a wolf.”

The general meaning of man to mean human person of either gender survives in modern English in such words as manslaughter and mankind. The latter is being superseded by the word humankind in the belief that the man- of mankind excludes women. Its fixed legal use will probably prevent manslaughter from being replaced by humanslaughter.

The Old English word for a female person, married or unmarried, was wyf.

The meaning “female spouse” developed within the OE period, but the general sense of woman, married or unmarried, continued. In the 18th century, one definition of wife was “a woman of humble rank or of low employment,” a sense that remains in the words fishwife and alewife. . . .

It’s interesting that today’s general word for “adult female person,” woman, originated when wyf (“female person”) was joined to man (“human being”) to produce the combination wyfman (“female human being”). The modern form woman developed from a plural of wyfman that did not include the /f/ sound or spelling: wimman.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

Symitar Documentation Services

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