Etymology Linguistics

Widow thou goest

Q: I’ve always wondered why women are widows and men are widowers. Can you shed some light?

A: This is something we’ve wondered about ourselves, and now we have an excuse to ferret out the answer.

As you might imagine, “widow” is a very old word. It came into English in the 800s through old Germanic sources.

But its ancestry goes far back into prehistory, to an ancient Indo-European stem reconstructed as widh (to be empty or separated).

This same prehistoric root may be seen in the Latin verb dividere (to separate), as well as in the English “divide,” “individual,” and other words.

In Old English, there were two versions of “widow”: the masculine widewa and the feminine widewe. So there was one word for a bereaved husband and another for a bereaved wife.

The “er” ending for the masculine version developed in the late 14th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new word is from the poem Piers Plowman (1362), in the phrase “widewers and widewes.”

The two words were spelled various ways until the modern “widow” and “widower” emerged as the standard forms in the 18th century.

This may sound pretty straightforward, but the actual evolution of “widow” and “widower” was a bit messier.

The feminine version was used now and then to refer to men from around 1000 to the late 19th century, sometimes by itself and sometimes in the phrase “widow-man.”

The latest citation for this usage is from an 1894 novel by the Scottish writer Samuel R. Crockett: “I had been a widow three years when I began to gang aboot Parton Hoose to see her.”  

Meanwhile, the verb “widow” (to make a widow of) and the participial adjective “widowed” have continued to apply to both sexes.

A “widow” is defined in the OED as “a woman whose husband is dead (and who has not married again); a wife bereaved of her husband.”

And a “widower” is “a man whose wife is dead (and who has not married again); a husband bereaved of his wife.”

Here’s an etymological aside. John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that the Indo-European root we mentioned above “produced a large number of words for ‘widow’ in the Indo-European languages.”

Those words include the Latin vidua (source of the French veuve, Italian vedova, and Spanish viuda), the Russian and Czech vdova, Welsh gweddr, German witwe, Dutch weduwe, and of course our English “widow.”

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