Q: As my wife was telling me about a study of midwives in the early Dutch Reform Church, it dawned on me that the term “midwife” has always seemed an odd descriptor for what a midwife does.
A: The word “midwife” is deceptive because its parts are survivals from the Middle Ages, when the word was midwif.
In Old English, mid meant “with” and wif meant “woman.” So when midwif came along in the Middle English period (1100-1500), its literal meaning was “with-woman”—someone (usually a woman, but not always) who was “with” a mother giving birth.
Today we think of “mid” as middle point. But in Old English and Middle English, “mid had approximately the same range of senses as modern English with,” says the Oxford English Dictionary.
By the end of the 1300s, the old preposition mid had been displaced by “with,” the OED says, though the old usage “probably survives as the first element of the compound midwife.”
A good example of an old use of “mid” that disappeared is the Old English mid ealle (literally “with all”), which later became “withal” (meaning “altogether” or “entirely”).
Another example is the Old English term for pregnancy, mid childe. Over the course of the 1300s, mid childe was superseded by “with child.”
The OED’s last citation for the older term is dated 1340: “Þe wyfman grat myd childe” (“The woman great with child”), from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a Middle English translation of a French treatise on morality.
In modern English, “mid” has lost its “with” sense and now is mainly used as an adjective or prefix meaning middle, halfway, and so on. The only prepositional use that survives is the poetic “mid” that’s short for “amid” or “in the midst of” (as in “mid storm and strife”).
However, the old English preposition that meant “with” is still alive in the other Germanic languages: met in Dutch, mit in German, með in Icelandic, and med in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish.
As for “wife,” which we’ve written about on our blog, it meant a woman, not necessarily a married one, in Old English.
“The Old English general sense of woman,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “survives in fishwife, midwife, and old wives’ tales.”
In its etymological notes on “midwife,” the OED says “the original sense seems to have been ‘woman who is with the mother at childbirth.’ ”
While the “midwife” was usually a woman, this wasn’t always the case. Here’s the OED’s earliest definition of the word: “A woman (or, rarely, a man) who assists women in childbirth.”
In more recent times, the OED notes, the word has come to mean “a nurse trained and qualified to do this and to give antenatal and post-natal care.”
This is Oxford’s earliest citation, from a Lives of the Saints composed around 1300: “Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”).
And this much less dramatic example illustrates the modern usage: “The doctor or midwife will issue the woman with Form MATB1 at about the 26th week of pregnancy.” (From Ian Hunter’s book The Which? Guide to Employment, 1998.)
Of course we use “midwife” figuratively, too, to mean one who helps bring something into being.
The OED’s earliest example of the figurative usage is from Shakespeare’s Richard II, thought to have been written about 1595: “So Greene, thou art the midwife to my woe, / And Bullingbrooke my sorowes dismall heire.”
The most recent figurative example in Oxford is from a 1998 issue of the British music magazine Record Collector: “Brian had retired to his Hollywood mansion, only emerging sporadically when Carl acted as midwife to one of his new compositions.”
Finally, as big fans of amphibians in general, we can’t pass up a chance to mention the “midwife toad,” so named because the male carries the fertilized eggs around on his back legs.
When the eggs are ready to hatch, he enters the water and releases the new tadpoles. This toad’s taxonomic name: Alytes obstetricans.