Is "Woman" Sexist?

Linguistic rage

As a certified Internet User™, you have probably seen re-spellings of the word “women.” Wimmin, womyn, and womxn (which aims not just to deemphasize the suffix -man but to specifically include transgender people and people of color, which wimmin and womyn did not do. More info here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/14/style/womxn.html) are all mildly common and have been around in some variation since the 1970s. The thinking here is to create a more inclusive and less dude-centric word. Take the man out of woman.

And some people really hate this!

The most common complaints: It’s hard to pronounce, spellcheckers hate it, and it’s simply not a word. I’m mostly curious about that last complaint, but let’s deal with the first two first.

How do you pronounce it? Eh. Unclear. Wo-mynx? Women, unchanged? Do your best. Why are you being so grumpy? I don't know how to pronounce defibrillator, either.

Spellcheckers hate it? You are not, in fact, beholden to your spellchecker. I make up words all the time. Shakespeare made up words. I heartily recommend it. (There is actually some fascinating info on how spellcheckers have a tendency to flatten languages. There are plenty of words with multiple acceptable spellings [canceled and cancelled, for example], but because our devices default to one, we tend to start thinking of one as more correct than the other.)

It’s simply not a word?

I have to assume people who say this about any word don’t really understand how language works. Language was not created when a 2019 Oxford English Dictionary (pretty sure there is no 2019 OED) dropped from the sky. English has changed, is changing, and will continue to change. Digging in your heels shan’t help.

The thing is, womyn and wimmin and womxn don’t fix the “man” problem these wordsmiths are aiming to address. It is easy to see how someone would look at the word woman and think wo + man. In this case, man is first and woman is what follows after. Men = primary importance. Women = secondary. There is plenty of biblical and historical (herstorical?) stuff that does say this, but the word woman is actually not one of these instances.

In Old English, the word man did not mean male human. It meant, more generally, human. Woman, in turn, was either wif or wifman, roughly meaning wife-human. I didn’t say it was a good etymology. I just said it was different than you thought.

Wer was the rough translation of our modern man. You can see this in words like werwulf, our modern werewolf. (Why not wifwolf? #womencanbewerewolvestoo #feminism)

I pride myself on realistic facial hair illustrations.

When I saw wifman, my first question was, “Then what the heck was the word for wife?” In a much cooler turn of events, people often used cwen, or our modern queen.

Husband hasn’t changed as much. You might be able to parse the meaning just by looking at it. Hus-band. House-bound. Generally, it meant the ruler or lord of a house.

Person, as far as I can tell, wasn’t a different word than human in Old English. We adopted person out of convenience from French, which in turn took it from Latin, when man began to mean male human and we needed something new.

I’m also partial to folk, which means person or people in a heck of a lot of other languages.

Human is weird because it’s both noun and adjective. It’s another friend from French, which again lifted the word from Latin. Latin took it from Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of languages from Portuguese to Punjabi to Russian with the delightful acronym PIE. In PIE, dhghomon meant earth-dweller. Dhghem- is earth. -On is on. On earth. Earth-dweller. Dhghomon is not, admittedly, the easiest word to pronounce, but if you try to say it out loud, you will probably get something not grossly dissimilar to human.

Do I know how to make letters on this drawing app? Not really, but do I know how to make anything on this drawing app?

I made this handy chart so you can see how the words shifted. Note that there are multiple translations for many of these words, and also that, despite Duolingo’s best efforts, I am fluent in only the first of these languages.

Language

“Woman”

“Wife”

“Man”

“Husband”

“Person/people”

“Human”

English

woman

wife

man

husband

person

human

Old English

wif/wifman

cwen

wer

husbonda

man

man

French

femme

femme

homme

mari

personne

humain

Latin

femina

uxor

homo

maritus

populus

homo/humanus

There ya have it. Is woman a sexist word? I mean… kinda? Does saying womxn take out the sexism? Again, kinda? It makes a statement because it clarifies to the reader/listener that you are trying your best to be inclusive. But does it strip away sexist linguistic roots? Nope. The wo- still comes from wife. So really, if you wanted to create a word free from problematic undertones, you might just have to invent something new. Like glooberoo.

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