An acquaintance, describing her experience at the Womyn’s Music Festival in Michigan (“this woman was totally giving herself a breast* massage…”), turned to me and “Hmm, I don’t think you could get in with that beard.” The festival, you see, is for womyn only, so I think Liesl was right, but I was intrigued by the implication that I might pass if I could lose the beard; it’s true that I was once addressed as “Mrs. Foxen” in the IGA in Caledonia, MN, and come to think of it, I did once appear at the family Thanksgiving dinner dressed as my late grandmother, but I have, over the years, by no means maintained my girlish figure.
But I digress. According to the Wikipedia “Womyn” page**, the folk festival in question originated that usage in order to combat the pervasive cultural assumption that wo-men are a variant or perhaps deviant version of men. Those were different days—I think the festival’s founders would be shocked to learn that not only ‘woman’ but ‘girl,’ ‘lady,’ and even the dreaded ‘chick’ have been reclaimed by feminists—but the objection brings up an interesting and twisty history. It is true that ‘woman’ comes from a compound of the Old English ‘wif’ and ‘mon,’ but the thing is that in OE, neither of those words mean quite what you think. ‘Wif’ meant ‘female’ or ‘woman’ rather than ‘wife’ (Grendel’s mother, for example is described as an ‘ides aglaecwif’ ‘lady monster-wif’ even though she is almost certainly a single mom). And ‘mon’ seems to have meant ‘human being’ rather than ‘man’; the way you can tell is that, when Anglo-Saxons wanted to contrast men and women, they never used ‘mon’ for the masculine, instead commonly writing ‘wer ond wif’ or ‘wifmon and waepnedmon..’
You can perhaps guess that ‘waepnedmon’ means ‘person with a weapon,’ either a reflection of the Anglo-Saxons’ fondness for violence or of their equally well-attested fondness for phallic jokes. ‘Wer,’ from the same Indo-European root as ‘virile,’ It was the ordinary OE word for ‘man,’ and is the first part of the word ‘werewolf’ (i.e., man-wolf; the French borrowed ‘wer’ but the foreign ‘w’ apparently sounded like a ‘g’ to them and they ended up with loup-garou).
There wan also another word for guy or dude, ‘guma,’ later ‘gome’ (from the same root as Lat. ‘homo’ as in hominid, ad hominem, etc.). This word died out except in the specific term for a guy who gets married, the ‘bride-gome,’ but since nobody knew what the second part meant any more, they substituted a similar-sounding word for a guy who takes care of your horse, a ‘groom.’ I like to think that some naïve youth went to his bridal chamber thinking that his conjugal duties would consist of brushing his bride’s hair, throwing a blanket over her, and giving her a bag of oats.
With the disappearance of ‘wer’ and ‘guma,’ ‘mon’ drifted over to its modern meaning and sometimes it was not clear whether a speaker was intentionally restricting the discourse to males or just forgetting that they are not the only kind of human. You can see the confusion when Hamlet says “Man delights not me” and then hastens to add “No, nor woman neither.” He is perhaps worried that instead of declaring his misanthropy, people will think he is denying the rumors and Horatio and his sweet prince have been up to more things at the Uni than are dreamt of in Rick Santorum’s philosophy.
Eventually (in the 18th Century, I am told), this laziness was formalized into the use of Man as a synonym for humanity, completing the colonization of the human territory by its weapon-carrying half. People are apparently still writing books about human evolution called “The X of Man”; when I commented recently that this struck me as obsolete, not to say dumb, one of my brothers said I’d been spending too much time with my feminazi sister. Hi ho.
*Yes, I know this is the second straight post in which I’ve mentioned breasts, but I am not making it up. Besides, as a member of my household once said “Everybody loves chesties–right, girls?”
**The article gets the Old English stuff all bollixed up, so ignore that part.