The Etymologies of Gender-specific English Words

by Ash Navabi

One of my least favourite fallacies is the so-called “etymological fallacy“. Basically, it refers to the idea that just because a certain word (or idea, or trend, or meme) had a specific meaning when it first came about, then that word (or idea or whatever) must mean the same thing today. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Remember that a word is merely a sound (or shapes written down). Words come about to convey a meaning. But the meaning existed before the word. In other words, someone wanted to express a certain idea, and thought that a certain sound or series of shapes would be best to communicate that idea to others, others understood the meaning of the new sound/shapes, and thus a word was born.

But exactly because meaning precedes words, it is the case that words change their meaning over time. A few famous examples of this are “awful” (which meant “full of awe”), “terrific” (which originally meant “terrifying”), and “hussy” (which originally referred to just a housewife).

Gender issues seem to be popular these days, so I thought I’d give some etymological histories on some gender-specific words (the source of all these etymologies is 

Female vs. Male

“Female” (along with “feminine”) comes from the Latin word femella, meaning “young girl”. “Male” comes from the Latin masculus, meaning “masculine, male, worthy of a man”. It’s also interesting to note that female entered English in the early 1300s, but male in the late 1300s.

Woman vs man

“Woman” comes from the Old English wifman, with wif meaning “woman”, and “man” meaning human being or just person. “Man” originally meant any person, male or female; but around the year 1000 it also began to refer to adult males. (Before then, the word wer referred to adult men, and is the root of the word werewolf.) In other words, “woman” has referred to women longer than “man” has exclusively referred to men.

Girl vs boy

“Girl” used to refer to a young child of either sex in 1300s, but became to mean specifically a female child a hundred years later. “Boy” entered the English language in the mid-1200s, and also was used in reference to servants at the same time, but its origins are mysterious. There is some evidence that it has the same root as the word “babe”.

Guys vs gals

“Guy” started out as the English version the Italian name Guido, but it entered the common parlance in 1806 as a short way to a Guy Fawkes doll that the English burned every year on November 5. After a while it referred to any poorly dressed person, but by 1847 it came to have its current meaning of “fellow”.

“Gal” was just a slang way of saying “girl” in 1795.

Penis vs vulva

“Penis” came into English in the 1670s from the Latin penis (also, fun fact: the plural of penis is penes). “Vulva” had been used by the English since at least the late 1400s, and has its origins in the Latin word volva–which might have meant “wrapper”. (Interestingly, it appears that while the Greeks called a penis peos [which has the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Latin word, they seemingly had no direct word for vulva–the best they could do was aidoío thíleos, which is closer to “female external genitals”.)

Brother vs sister

“Brother” is an old, old word, having carried into English from the Proto-Germanic settlers; but the word goes further back in more or less the same form to the Proto-Indo-European days. It was first recorded as a specific term among blacks in 1973.

“Sister” has a similarly old history, but according to one scholar it’s roots probably evolved from “one’s own woman”. Calling a “female fellow Christian” a sister has been happening since the mid-1400s, and reference to a black woman was first recorded in 1926.

Fraternity vs sorority

Fraternity and sorority have the same etymological roots as brother and sister, but instead of entering English through the Germans, they came via Old French (which in turn got them from Latin). But a fraternity referred to a “a body of men associated by common interest” in in the early 1300s, while sorority didn’t get it’s current meaning until the 1530s.

Father vs mother

“Father” comes from the Old English faeder, which came to the language via Proto-Germanic *fader. (The star means there is no direct written record of the word, so scholars have “constructed” the word from other sources.)

“Mother” had a similar history: Old English modor. But it’s likely the spelling and pronunciation shift from the –d- to the modern -th- happened with “mother” first.

Mom vs dad

Both words likely to come from baby talk. “Mom” is a shortening of “mommy” or “mamma”, which came to English in the 1570s–around the time Shakespeare was in primary school. Middle English had a word mome (rich people put the stress on the second syllable), which actually meant “aunt or old woman”. Mama is from 1707, mum is from 1823, mummy in this sense from 1839, mommy 1844, momma 1852, and mom 1867.

“Dad” was first recorded in English circa 1500. Curiously, while “mom” is a shorted version of “mommy”, “daddy” is in fact a diminutive form of “dad”.

Madam vs sir

First recorded around the year 1300, “madame” comes from the Old French ma dame, or “my lady”. It wasn’t until 1871 someone referred to a female brothel owner as a madam.

“Sir” also came about around the year 1300, and was a variant of sire (which entered English from the Old French about a hundred years earlier).

Mister vs missus

As a title, it’s been in use since the mid-1400s. As a general form of address to a stranger who’s name you didn’t know? 1760. It is a variant of the word master, an old word coming from the Latin maegester. 

Missus is a corrpution of mistress. Started referring to “the wife” in 1833.

Lady vs gentleman

“Lady” comes from the Old English circa the year 1200, hlaefdige, which literally means “one know kneads bread.”

“Gentleman” comes from around 1150 to 1200, a compound word meaning gentle in the sense that someone was “well-born”.

Wife vs husband

Above we mentioned that wif was the old English word for woman in Iraq. Wife-swapping first recorded in 1954.

“Husband” comes from the Old English husbonda, “master of the house”. Didn’t mean a “married man” until the late 1200s, replacing the word wer. Not until the 1680s does someone record “hubby”.