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Where the werewolf got his 'were'

One of the best things about studying the history of English is digging up words that, for the most part, have died out of the language but still pop up in funny places.

For example, let's take a look at "wer" and "wif", the Old English words for man and woman.

Etymologically, "wer" is related to "vir", which is Latin for man. "Vir" shows up in modern English in words like "virile" and "virility."

However, "wer" has pretty much vanished from modern English. Except for one word.

It's a word embedded in the careers of Lon Chaney Jr., Michael J. Fox and Warren Zevon.

Of course, we're talking about "werewolf." Now that you know the etymology of "wer" it's easy to see how "werewolf" translates to "man-wolf."

Now let's look at "wif." Today, we know it as "wife" which refers to a married woman. But in Old English, "wif" simply meant an adult woman.

Later on, it becomes the compound "wifman." In Old English, "man" was a generic term, so a wifman was a female person. Over time, that "f" drops away and eventually, the word becomes "woman."

Knowing the etymology of "wif" helps to explain a few mysterious expressions. For example, "old wives' tales." Did you ever wonder why only old married women can sit around telling tales? Why can't single older ladies tell tales?

Again, this goes back to the older meaning of "wif" which was simply "woman." Thus, "old wives' tales" are tales that old women tell. 

Then there's "midwife." We know that a midwife is a person, typically a woman, who assists women during childbirth. But where do we get that term? 

It helps to know that "mid" in Old English means "with." Put that together with the older meaning of "wife" or "wif",  and you get "with woman." A midwife is the woman with the woman who's having a baby.

By the way, there are some folk etymologies for "woman" floating around out there, but trust us, they're wrong. "Woman" does not come from "womb-man" nor does it come from the even more cringe-inducing phrase "woe-to-man." 


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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