Thursday, October 15, 2009

What it (literally) means to be a woman

Did you know that if you're female, it's impossible to express your existence in the English language without contextualizing yourself?

Here is the etymological proof:

The word "woman" is derived from the Old English wifman.  Wif meant "woman" and is the same word from which we derive the modern "wife."  Man meant simply "human being."  So to be a man is simply to be human; to be a woman is to be a qualified, and thus lesser, version of a human being.

The word "female" is derived from the Latin femella, a diminutive of the Latin word femina, which literally means "she who suckles."  So to call yourself a female is to reduce your existence to the biological function of reproduction.  In contrast, the word "male" is derived from the Latin masculus, which simply means "male."

The word "girl" is of unclear origin, but the two contenders are an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "garment" and an ancient Greek word meaning "virgin."  So to refer to yourself as a girl is to contextualize yourself in terms of your appearance or your sexuality.

The word "lady" is derived from the Old English hlæfdige, which literally means "bread-kneader."  So when you say that you're a lady, you're reducing yourself to the traditionally female social function of domestic caretaker.

"Madam," "madonna," and "dame" all come from the Latin mea domina, which means "mistress of the house."

What none of these words mean, unlike their male counterparts, is the essence of the thing itself; every one of these words reflect sexual or social status.  Even the language we use refuses to recognize women as sovereign entities.

On a separate but related note, the word "vagina" comes from the Latin vagina, literally meaning a sheath, as for a sword.

It really puts things in perspective, doesn't it?
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