Of woman, wives and werewolves

What does the “were” in werewolf mean? It comes from an Old English word “wer” which means “man” so it actually makes sense. A “werewolf” is a man-wolf. The word “wer” eventually stopped being used but the word “werewolf” stuck around and once the word “wer” was a distant memory people began to wonder what the “wer” meant.

This eventually lead to people reinterpreting the “were” to mean “monster” such as the game “Sonic the Werehog”. In this usage the were- part is clearly refering to Sonic’s transformation into a monster type creature. This new meaning of “were” was used by the writer Curtis Jobling in his “Wereworld” series of books. In this fictional world the animals that some people can turn into are called “werecreatures”.

Now you might be wondering what this has to do with wives?

Well, in Old English times a man was called a wer or a wermann and a woman was called a wīf or a wīfmann. Back then “mann” just meant a person like it does in other germanic languages. Over time the meanings of “wīf” and “mann” changed. Eventually the word “wīf” became associated with a married woman.

In this use it is quite similar to how in German a married woman is just called a “Frau”. Whether someone is married or unmarried you can just called them a “Frau”. In Old English times it was the same. A woman was a wīf regardless of whether she was married or not.

This was the case for a long time but for some reason the form wīfmann eventually became more popular than the form wīf. These things happen. Words are a bit like fashion and tastes change.

Over time people started pronouncing the ī in wīf as an o giving us “woman” and that’s where the modern word “woman” comes from. What’s fascinating though is that it is actually still present in the plural and that is why we say “wimen” when talking about more than one woman.

So a word which started out meaning a male human (wer) now means “monster”, a word meaning just a female human (wīf) eventually came to mean “married female” and a variation of the term female human (wīfmann) didn’t merge in meaning with the word “wīf” but actually got its own meaning.

So that’s the story of woman, wives and werewolves

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.