R/W: Adult Human Female

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Word Nerdery

GIF: Cher from Clueless, Way Harsh TaiWoman. Noun. An adult human female. Google suggests: “a female worker or employee; a wife, girlfriend, or lover.” Pack mule, brood mare, treasured possession. Ouch, Google. That’s way harsh.

As usual, the Online Etymology Dictionary is more useful, and more interesting:

“adult female human,” late Old English wimman, wiman (plural wimmen), literally “woman-man,” alteration of wifman (plural wifmen) “woman, female servant” (8c.), a compound of wif “woman” (see wife) + man “human being” (in Old English used in reference to both sexes; see man (n.)). Compare Dutch vrouwmens “wife,” literally “woman-man.”

Woman = wif + man, where man = human being. The word “woman” has its origins in our — the people of those era —  seeking to exclude adult human females from the category of human beings. And in creating “woman” — adult human female — adult human males had a lingual category of their own in “man.”

At some point the whole fundamental category of species being as gendered thing had to pose some problems right? One would assume. That’s why we have the word “human,” obviously. Well.

Online Etymology Dictionary to the rescue again:

mid-15c., humain, humaigne, from Old French humain, umain (adj.) “of or belonging to man” (12c.), from Latin humanus “of man, human,” also “humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized,” probably related to homo (genitive hominis) “man” (see homunculus) and to humus “earth,” on notion of “earthly beings,” as opposed to the gods (compare Hebrew adam “man,” from adamah “ground”). Cognate with Old Lithuanian zmuo (accusativezmuni) “man, male person.”

Oh. Yeah, that. The misogyny, it turns out, is written into the very language we speak. Because language changes as we change: how we speak and what we speak about (and don’t) has everything to say about who we are.

Further reading: a miniature history of “female.”

Links and More Links


Over on The Toast, linguist Gretchen McCulloch explains the existence of gendered pronouns in English, and how they really work. I won’t spoil — go read for yourself.

Staff Picks: Top 10 Most Important Books - Anne of Green GablesKate Beaton linked this piece on a later L M Montgomery novel, Rilla of Ingleside:

“This coming-of-age novel opens with the news of the war breaking out in 1914. The 35 chapters focus on Anne and Gilbert’s youngest child, Bertha Marilla Blythe. Rilla is impetuous and oblivious, ready to take part in adult activities. But when WWI occurs, her brothers, friends and beau go off to war and Rilla has to grow up in ways she had not expected. The novel also shows the struggle young men (and their loved ones) had with the ugliness and death associated with war through the characters of Jem and Walter Blythe.”

It’s heavily contextual, which makes for meaty reading. Lisps, Canada, feathers, poetry…

— Claire

Jill Lepore’s recent piece for The New Yorker, The Last Amazon, is a fascinating overview of the intimate connection between the history of Wonder Woman and that of first and second-wave American feminism. Having done some reading on Golden Age comics before, I knew Wondy creator William Moulton Marston lived in a polyamorous household with his wife, their partner, and four children, but I had no idea that the Marstons’ partner Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece. Excellent read for both casual and dedicated comics fans.

— Mai

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

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