In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros


Many know a woman only as wife and mother and through her household duties. That her place is in the home was first recorded by the Greek playwright Aeschylus, in 467 B.C. in Seven Against Thebes: "Let women stay at home and hold their peace." The first written English source of the sentiment is Thomas Fuller's Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, 1732: "A Woman is to be from her house three times: when she is Christened, Married and Buried."

Taking things up a notch, Bella Abzug, campaigning for office in the US Congress in 1970, used the slogan, "This woman's place is in the House... the House of Representatives."

What then is the real story?

Some would blame "woman," herself for reinforcing the stereotype through the word with which she is primarily identified. A certain Samuel Purchase surmised back in 1619 that she is "a house builded for generation and gestation, whence our language calls her woman, 'womb-man'." It's an interesting theory. But if a woman is a "womb," what does that make a man? Other male linguists got even nastier, theorizing how she was "a woe to man."

What, then, is the real story? Not much. Most likely she was just a wifman (c.766), a compound of wif + man, "human being," the wif deriving from the Anglo Saxon wifan, "to weave," her personhood again being mainly defined by work in the household.

This still leaves today's definition of woman in question. Before addressing that, men might begin with themselves.