The Grammarphobia Blog

It’s a woman thing

Q: I heard you recently on Iowa Public Radio, but I wasn’t able to call about the frequent mispronunciation of “women” as “woman.” Do others complain about this? Or are my ears playing tricks on me?

A: This is a mispronunciation that’s new on me. I haven’t heard it, at least not that I’m aware of.

Roughly since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “woman” and “women” have been the regular spellings for the singular and plural forms of the word.

And from at least the 16th century, the only difference in pronunciation between the two has been the sound of the first vowel.

Here’s how the OED puts it: “The pronunciation (wu-) was ultimately appropriated to the sing. and (wi-) to the pl., probably through the associative influence of pairs like foot and feet.”

By the way, it was mentioned during my radio appearance that the word “woman” is not derived from (or a mere variation on) the term “man.” The story is much more complicated.

Here’s how my husband, Stewart Kellerman, and I explain it in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language:

“In Anglo-Saxon times, when words were bubbling away in the stewpot of Old English, there were several ways to refer to men and women. For a few hundred years, manna and other early versions of our modern word ‘man’ referred merely to a person regardless of sex – that is, a human being. So how did the Anglo-Saxons tell one sex from the other? A single or married man was a wer or a waepman (literally a ‘weapon-person’). A single or married woman was a wif or a wifman.

“By the year 900 or so, wifman began to lose its f. Over the next five hundred years, it went through many spellings until it settled down as our modern word ‘woman.’ Meanwhile, wif, which had its own share of spellings before becoming ‘wife’ in the 1400s, led a double life. It could mean a married woman, as it does today, but also a woman, married or single, in a humble trade – an archaic usage that survives in the quaint terms ‘fishwife’ and ‘alewife.’

“Speaking of quaint terms, whatever happened to the weapon-people? Around the year 1000, the various versions of manna began to mean an adult male as well as a human being. By the 1400s, manna had become our modern word ‘man,’ while the old macho terms wer and waepman had fallen out of use. … That left the guys without a unique word for an adult male. They had to share ‘man’ with humanity in general. If you ask me, it was the men who got screwed, etymologically speaking. We women ended up with a word all our own.”

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