Thursday, February 23, 2012

Language of Confusion: Oh, the Humanity!

This may surprise you, but man did not always refer to the male of the species. The reason “mankind” seems male-skewed is because it was formed when “man” referred to the entire species. Words are dropped and created all the time in languages, so after wer, the Old Englishword for male human, was dropped in the tenth century, they picked man to replace it. Honestly, that makes sense. The people with the most power were men, as were those who had access to books (monks and priests). I can believe they’d choose the equivalent of human to represent themselves.

The word human itself showed up in the mid fifteenth century as humain or humaigne. Unsurprisingly, it comes from classical Latin (humanus) by way of Old French (humain). Humanus most likely comes from homo (which means man), as in Homo sapiensand all those other species names.

And of course, it wouldn’t be fair not to mention the origin of woman. Back when man used to refer to both sexes, Old English used wer for men and wif for women. Before you ask, yes, it is the origin word for wife, too. They combined wif and man, kind of softening the f until it became wimman.

Interesting, huh? Well, I think it is.

English Club’s page on the history of the English language
Orbis Latinus’s page on the French language


  1. I was totally thinking of you in my English as a World Language class today. We've been going over the development of English from the Romans until... I think we're up to 1100ish. Just after the plague, maybe? Anyway, it's a very cool class. I think you would like it. (Although I don't know what we're going to talk about after we get to modern English.)

  2. We learn new things every time out from you! Thanks for posting this one.


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