In Old English, wīfmann meant "female human", whereas wēr meant "male human". Mann or monn had a gender-neutral meaning of "human", corresponding to Modern English "person" or "someone", however subsequent to the Norman Conquest, man began to be used more in reference to "male human", and by the late 1200s had begun to eclipse usage of the older term wēr. The medial labial consonants f and m in wīfmann coalesced into the modern form "woman", while the initial element, which meant "female," underwent semantic narrowing to the sense of a married woman ("wife").
A very common Indo-European root for woman, *gwen-, is the source of modern English "queen" (Old English cwēn had primarily meant woman, highborn or not; this is still the case in Danish, with the modern spelling kvinde, as well as in Swedish kvinna). The word gynaecology is also derived from the Ancient Greek cognate γυνή gynē, woman. Other English words traceable to the same Indo-European root include banshee "fairy woman" (from Irish bean "woman" and sí "fairy") and zenana (from Persian زن zan).
The Latin fēmina, whence female, is likely from the root in fellāre (to suck), in reference to breastfeeding.
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Famous quotes containing the word etymology:
“The universal principle of etymology in all languages: words are carried over from bodies and from the properties of bodies to express the things of the mind and spirit. The order of ideas must follow the order of things.”
—Giambattista Vico (16881744)
“Semantically, taste is rich and confusing, its etymology as odd and interesting as that of style. But while stylederiving from the stylus or pointed rod which Roman scribes used to make marks on wax tabletssuggests activity, taste is more passive.... Etymologically, the word we use derives from the Old French, meaning touch or feel, a sense that is preserved in the current Italian word for a keyboard, tastiera.”
—Stephen Bayley, British historian, art critic. Taste: The Story of an Idea, Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, Random House (1991)