International Women’s Day is coming up on March 8th, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to clear up a couple of common misconceptions about the origins of some gender words.
Let’s begin with male and female. You might assume that female is derived from male, with “fe” being appended as a prefix to male. That would be a good guess, but it’s wrong. Surprisingly, male and female have completely different origins.
Male derives from Old French, in which the word “masle” [pronounced as mahl] was used for the masculine gender. That’s because “masle” comes from Latin “masculus”, which in English evolved into masculine. Interestingly, as Spanish evolved from Latin, the “scl” in “masculus” became pronounced as “ch”, which gives us the uber-masculine macho.
Female comes from an entirely different direction. The Latin word “femella” meant woman, which became “femelle” in Old French, then came into English after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Over time, the phonetic similarities with male led to femelle being pronounced as female and spelled as though “fe” is a prefix to male. But it’s not.
We apply female and male not just to humans, but to all species of animals and plants in which there are two distinct genders. In contrast, woman and man are strictly human. Also in contrast, woman is derived from man, with the “wo” as a prefix to man—but not in the way that you might think.
Man has a long, long history, sharing a root with the ancient Sanskrit word “manu”, meaning “human being” regardless of gender. For most of English history man also was used to refer to any human being or to the entire human species, like Latin “homo.” Genesis, for example, says that “God created Man….both male and female.” In Old English, the word for an adult human male was wer, but this usage disappeared in the 13th century, being replaced by man for reasons that are unknown. Wer curiously lives on only in Werewolf.
Woman derives from the Old English compound “wif” and “man”, in which “wif” originally meant “female” and “man” meant human, so that wifman meant a female human. As English evolved, “wif” went on to develop into wife, while wifman transformed in spelling and pronunciation depending on the dialect, and eventually to the modern woman. So, the “wo” in woman is a prefix to man, but not man the male, but man the human.
Girl originally was a gender neutral pronoun for a child of either sex—even Chaucer used it this way—but came to mean a young female in the 1500’s. Gal is simply a contraction of girl. Yeah, I know that to make that contraction you have to drop the “r” and switch the vowel sound, which sounds improbable. But it’s is easier to understand when you consider that it occurred in Cockney English. Remember Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady—she drops her “r’s” and pronounces everything with an “ah”, like when she said, “I’m just a poor flower girl I am.” So, gal from girl isn’t really that hard.
Guy comes from one of those eccentric English traditions. Guy Fawkes—also known as Guido, seriously—plotted to assassinate King James and restore the Catholic monarchy. This did not end well for Guy. After he was caught, King James had his subjects celebrate the capture by lighting bonfires. The English still celebrate November 5th as Guy Fawkes night, even burning effigies of the poor Guy. Along the way, guy came to be used for an oddly dressed fellow because the effigies were typically made by children with no fashion sense. Today it is used to refer to any man regardless of his sartorial predilections.
Since we’re talking about gender words, gender itself traces back to the Greek word “gen”, to be born. This was picked up by the Romans and Latinized, and from there has proliferated as a root for an enormous number of words. We see it in genealogy, genus, progeny, and generation. The first book of the Bible, Genesis, explains the birth of the entire world. We also see “gen” in ingenious, generous and gentleman. In all of these words, the “gen” implies that one is born that way—it’s in our genes. So “gen” is an apt root for the word gender because we’re either born with two X chromosomes, or we’re not. Unless, of course, one is a genuine transgender gender bender. But that’s a story for another day.