Once upon a time, a very long time ago, the word ‘man’ in English was gender-neutral. This is not a fairy tale. It’s more like a macho-man story. Right up until the beginning of the 11th century, Old English ‘man’ or ‘mann’ meant “human being, person (male or female)”, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s related to the modern German word ‘man,’ which is also gender-neutral, meaning ‘one’ or ‘you’.
In Old English, the gender-specific word for man was ‘wer’ and for woman it was ‘wif.’ So, for example, ‘werewulf’ meant “person with the power to turn into a wolf.” These days, many women can testify to the capacity of persons, especially men, to turn themselves into wolves. In popular usage, a wolf is a predatory man who prowls about desperately looking for sex with women. I suppose some of these three-legged wolves also target men. And, of course, there are cougars. Like werewolves, some women do go hunting for delicious young men.
The word ‘woman’ also has a fascinating history. It comes from Old English ‘wifman’, literally meaning ‘woman-man’, a female human being. This compound word is similar to Dutch ‘vrouwmens’, which also means ‘woman-man’. Wife didn’t start to mean ‘married woman’ until quite late in the day. English still retains the original meaning of wife as woman in words like ‘midwife’ and ‘fishwife.’
Despite its current meaning that predominantly refers to the masculine gender, ‘man’ has, somewhat contradictorily, retained its original meaning as both male and female in words such as ‘mankind’. Nevertheless, feminists do challenge the way in which generic ‘man’ is now used to erase women. Over time, the gender-neutrality of ‘man’ has been compromised. Even the word ‘human’, which comes from Latin ‘homo’, meaning ‘man, human being’, seems to turn women into a subordinate species.
EVERYONE WANTS TO BE FREE
Long ago, I used to sing in a church choir. One of the songs in our repertoire was Edwin Hawkins’ hit, “Every man Wants To Be Free:”
“As free as the birds that fly over land and over sea.
He wants to be free
Free to do things my way (my way)
Free to say what I want to say (what I want to say)
And make my own decisions, even if I lose
God gave me the right to chose.”
Especially given the theme of the song, I tried to persuade the male director and other choir members to change “Every man” to “Everyone” and “he wants” to “I want.” Not a soul took me on. That was the early 1970s and gender politics was a contentious matter, especially in the rather conservative Seventh-Day Adventist church. So I made my own decision and exercised my God-given right to choose to do things my way and say what I wanted to say. Every time we performed that song, I lustily rebelled at the top of my voice, “Everyone wants to be free.” Of course, I was drowned out. But I had the satisfaction of knowing that I was standing up for ‘wifes’ everywhere.
Understandably, some feminists have taken rejection of the male privilege encoded in language to great extremes. For example, the word ‘menstruation’ has been replaced by ‘femstruation.’ It doesn’t matter that the ‘men’ in menstruation has nothing to do with the male of the species. It’s exclusively female. Menstruation comes from Latin ‘menstruus’ meaning monthly. The Old English word for menstruation is rather poetic, monaðblod, literally month-blood.
AMEN AND AWOMAN
It’s not only women who contest the patriarchal gender politics embedded in language. There are feminist men who understand the need to emancipate women from sexist stereotypes and oppressive gender roles that are reinforced in the words we use every day. Take, for instance, the harmless-sounding ‘maiden name.’ That rather old-fashioned word, ‘maiden’, conjures up images of virginal innocence. Many unmarried women are quite experienced sexually. Why should their surname still be called a ‘maiden’ name?
Feminist men don’t want their wives and daughters to be trapped in language that limits their capacity to fly free of sexist constraints. Last Sunday, Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a democratic from Missouri, gave the opening prayer on the first day of the 117th US Congress. He kicked up a Twitter storm of harmattan proportions with the final words of his prayer, “Amen and Awoman”. He was relentlessly mocked for appearing to misunderstand the meaning of the men in Amen.
Cleaver, who was trained as a United Methodist pastor, earned his Masters in Divinity from St Paul School of Theology. I’m quite sure he knows the origin and meaning of ‘Amen’, which comes from Hebrew, through Greek and Latin into English. The mockery of Cleaver’s words is yet another sign of the failure of white America to understand black culture. John McWhorter an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history. He tweeted: “‘Amen and A-woman’ is a long-lived Southern/black preacher signature. Rep Cleaver meant it as a kind of witticism.”
On Monday, Donald Trump Jr tweeted, “The prayer to open the 117th congress ended with “amen and a-woman.” Amen means “So Be It” in Latin. It isn’t a gendered word but that didn’t stop them from being insane. Is this what you voted for?” By Wednesday, there was absolute insanity in the US Capitol, instigated by his unhinged father. And only the truly deranged could say Amen.