All posts by Tom

Tom is a professional writer and film maker from London, England. His latest film, From Runes to Ruins , is about Anglo-Saxon history.

“Womyn” Need A Lesson On The Evil Patriarchy’s Etymology

When looking for evidence of that elusive folk devil “the patriarchy,” social activists will often point to the gendered bias of the English language. Some feminists have sought to encourage the use of “womyn” rather than woman or women (no distinction for the plural) because the latter imply a woman is simply a man with a “wo” prepended.

This is a rather peculiar assertion given the etymological history of the words “man” and “woman.” There are even some who complain of the alleged patriocentricity of “human” and “mankind.” I’m no expert on gender studies, but from an etymological perspective, I believe these claims are unfounded.

In the Old English of Anglo-Saxon times, “mann” was always gender neutral just as it sometimes is today. The prefixes wīf or wer could be added to denote female or male gender respectively. While the prefix wīf was separated and became “wife,” wīfmann evolved over the centuries to become wīmmann then wumman, and finally, the modern spelling “woman.” The Old English “mann” is an autohyponym, meaning it can refer both to a category and one of its subcategories. “Fox” is another autohyponym; referring to the species as well as the male of that species while “vixen” refers exclusively to the female.

Anglo-Saxon womyns

Anglo-Saxon womyns

Some have argued that the Anglo-Saxon use of “mann” as an autohyponym is evidence that less prejudiced notions of gender were prevalent among such peoples, but anyone familiar with the war-like and masculine history of the early Germanic tribes would scoff at this. Although “one” is now used more frequently as an indefinite pronoun, “man” is still commonly used this way in modern English and as an autohyponym. One need only remember the immortal words of Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the moon for evidence of this.

Then of course there’s the American slang usage of man as an interjection and the Welsh English, AAVE and Jamaican patois usage of “man” as a term of familiar address. These slang uses are now prevalent among English speaking youth of all cultures and are not necessarily gender specific. Bart Simpson’s impertinent catchphrase “Don’t have a cow, man!” has been directed at male and female alike, without amendment.

The consistently gender neutral “human” came into our vocabulary later on and wasn’t used as a noun until the 16th century. It’s a Middle English loanword the Normans took from Old French humain, ultimately from Latin hūmānus, the root of which, hum, originally meant “soil,” indicating that early Indo-Europeans believed that mankind sprung from the earth itself or was at least connected to it.

The second part of the word is not related to the English “man,” which, coming from Old English mann, derives from Proto-Germanic mannaz. So, etymologically speaking, one can’t seriously argue that “human” is patriocentric either.

“Mankind” on the other hand, does derive from “mann,” but does that really make it patriocentric? By 1300 A.D. we see “mankind” referring to the human race after it had replaced the Old English mancynnes, which meant the same thing. It can be found in one of the first examples of the English language; an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Dream of the Rood.”

Geseah ic þa frean mancynnes efstan elne mycle

“I saw the Lord of mankind summon great strength”

Mancynnes was gender neutral and “mankind” remains absolutely gender neutral to this day, thus rendering  “humankind,” “womankind,” or even “womynkind” rather redundant. Since Old English cynnes means “race,” there can be no mankind in the gendered sense, nor can there be a “womankind,” since women are a gender not a race. You can get a feel for how similar the language of the Anglo-Saxons was to our modern English by looking at these Useful Phrases in Old English.

The transition from “mann” to “humain” occurred as the result of an authoritative imposition of new linguistic conventions from above. Language does not always evolve “naturally,” but rather is very often altered in accordance with changing ideals and power structures. The fusion of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon resulted in an English language with a schizophrenic tendency, whereby numerous words describe the same thing but with different cultural connotations (e.g. “beef” and “cow”).

It is therefore unlikely we will ever do away with words such as “mankind” or “woman” even if they may be forced to coexist with politically correct alternatives such as “womyn” and “human-kind.” And, given the history of the terms, why should we?

Read More: The English Are Coming!