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Woman or Womyn?

August 2, 2010

Womyn is used as an alternative spelling to woman by people who think that the former is thought to be oppressive and reminiscent of a patriarchal society. I decided to do a little research on the etymology of the word woman and what I found was rather interesting. I didn’t do a very extensive investigation, so bare with me while I do a superficial analysis of what I’ve read so far.

Woman comes from the Old English word wifman, which literally translate to female human. The suffix man meaning human, while the prefix wo simply means female. The Old English word man (or mann) was gender neutral in connotation and was used to designate a ‘someone’ or a ‘one’. This use is still common today, when someone refers to mankind they mean everyone and not just male humans. The word werman was used for that particular usage: wer meaning male and man meaning human.

If you apply this knowledge within the mind frame of the aforementioned oppressive and patriarchal mindset, an easy conclusion to jump to is that the prefix wer was dropped with time and that man, that is to say ‘human’, by default came to mean ‘male human’. The defining prefix no longer applies and the word man as we now use it today simply means male.

In this context, I don’t see anything oppressive about the word woman. Its original meaning still holds today. If an argument could be made to alter the spelling of either woman or man, it is the word man that has been changed and altered with time. Whether you wish to assign an oppressive meaning to that change is up for debate and at this time depends on your personal views on the matter.

Personally, I don’t have issue with either word. Language simply changes with time. Usually though, it’s an organic process where certain syllables are dropped or changed. In the case of changing the spelling of woman to womyn, I don’t find the process organic, but forced. Womyn is a variant spelling that was created to make a point. I don’t especially like it, but my reasons for that are based, more or less, on a gut reaction. A gut reaction based mostly on the poetics and aesthetics of language rather than on the meaning.

If it actually came to a debate about officially changing the spelling of woman to womyn then I think I would fall back on my original analysis and say no to such a change, but since it’s a question of personal use I don’t really care. Whatever floats your boat and all that jazz. I did  however find myself annoyed by a few comments I read when I googled ‘woman versus womyn’. I came across a message board where a few dudes were discussing the issue and comments like: “If a woman came up to me and tried to explain to me how that the word ‘woman’ should be changed because of what they thinks it means, I’ll laugh in her face and then try to slap some sort of sense into her”, “I hate feminists”, or this lovely little tirade:

“OMG this debate is f***ing retarded it makes me laugh…………..-laughs- Any girl that comes up to me with this argument, it will be a roast. Seriously. The idea was brought up by a bunch of feminist that have nothing else to do but to sit on there fat a**es complaining how “us men are controlling the world”. ITS BULLSH**! I never heard of this till Mal brought it up. It s a waste of the countrys and the worlds god dam time. I am tired of it. There is more serious stuff than this. Its how the world works. It how words are made. Its not our fault some crackpot made the words is it? AThere are SOOOOOoooo many religions and logic to back me up. Heres one religion of christianity and I quote “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones. flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman because she was taken out of a man.”. If your christian and that dont convince you I dont know what will….If you change this word just think of the other words will will have to change. Mail, for instance. Why not call it, “femail”. Lets get a list of words SOCIETY has chosen of thats “male dominated”. Once again, complete bullsh** and a waste of time. Any person on the feminist side in this debate will get owned.” [sic]

On second though, if you look at this guy’s analysis, he’s actually making a pretty good point to support the change of woman to womyn: “she shall be called woman because she was taken out of a man”. Now, who wouldn’t want to support that analysis? I know I wouldn’t want to be called a woman if this was the true etymology of the word. Seriously, I think I’ll adopt the word just to annoy people like him. Thank god (in a manner of speaking), I don’t actually live my life out of spite.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dawn permalink
    August 3, 2010 1:55 pm

    Interesting. I remember an old Rastaman in Jamaica calling me ‘wombman.’ I thought that was a great compromise of wording to represent the power we females possess.

    Love your blog, by the way!

  2. August 3, 2010 6:57 pm

    Wombman definitely has a nice ring to it, especially if you imagine it being said in a Jamaican accent.

    P.S. Thanks!

  3. August 4, 2010 7:23 am

    I have seriously started thinking about and acknowledging in my language people who do not identify with either ‘man’ or ‘woman’ or ‘womyn’ or ‘wimmin’ or ‘wombman’!

    I would like to be gender non-conforming myself. I already am in many ways but language is so powerful it is difficult to change

  4. August 4, 2010 8:01 am

    That is definitely something I wasn’t considering when I wrote this post. It was a very limited investigation of language.

    I don’t have the sufficient knowledge to do much more. I want to learn more about how language can be used to acknowledge people who don’t identify with the binary of man and woman. I always end up feeling like I don’t know enough to express the way I feel about it. Language is restrictive in that way, trying to express an idea that exists beyond the usual woman-man shtick becomes muddled really fast.

    It’s like slowly learning an entirely new way of expressing yourself when the words don’t quite exist yet. There always seems to be an aspect that gets left out….

  5. August 4, 2010 4:02 pm

    ‘It’s like slowly learning an entirely new way of expressing yourself when the words don’t quite exist yet. There always seems to be an aspect that gets left out….’

    Totally. That is what it is like! I am up for the challenge.

  6. arctic_jay permalink
    August 13, 2010 6:27 pm

    The reason why sex/gender is described with a binary is because reproduction only has two necessary types of participants. If you don’t identify as either male or female, than you are non-gendered, not a member of some as of yet unnamed gender.

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