Saturday, March 20, 2010

Womyn

    (There) lived a family of bears ... together anthropomorphically in a little cottage as a nuclear family. They were very sorry about this, of course, since the nuclear family has traditionally served to enslave womyn, instill a self-righteous moralism in its members, and imprint rigid notions of heterosexualist roles onto the next generation. (They named) their offspring the non-gender-specific "Baby."
    James Finn Garner,
    "Goldilocks ," Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, (1994).

When I first saw this word womyn there was lots of confusion, then a deep sigh of realization. Gone were my guilt-free days of eating Cool-Whip out of the tub in a chocolate induced bliss. Now they had reshuffled semantics to demonstrate compassion toward people who can't spell.

I was wrong. This isn't about spelling in the strictest sense, but more about how people view themselves in terms of societal values. Several studies by linguists have discovered that a good deal of the time many people think that using the word "men" refers to both genders. Since the idea of women as men's possession is becoming more and more antiquated in first world countries a significant number of womym would like to change grammar that reflects a more modern image of their gender in today's society by replacing the letter 'a' in the singular sense and 'e'for plural usage with the letter 'y.'

The word man evolved from Old English which was used to describe a man, mann, human being, or person. Sometime around the latter part of 1000 AD it gained the sense of "adult male." Later on people began to use wer and wif to distinguish the sexes, but wer began to disappear by the end of the 13th century and was replaced by man. Many think that woman means "of man." arieh explains where the suggestion of this comes from, "People may think that woman means 'of man' because of Genesis 2. Of course, the words in question there are the Hebrew Ish and Ishah, not the English. And Ishah doesn't even mean 'from Ish.'" A little research into the etymology reveals that woman comes from Old English in the form of wimman and the plural wimmen. It began replacing the older Old English term wif sometime during the 17th century. Before that the archaic word quean was used to describe a "female human being."

Since America had no authoritative source that determined what vocabulary was acceptable Noah Webster published his first of dictionary in 1806. Many editions followed and were considered the authorities, prescribing the "correct" spelling and the "correct" meaning of words. By middle of the 20th century the unabridged Webster's Third International Dictionary was published and this particular kind of prescription came to an end as being the primary reason for a dictionary. Rather than telling readers what was "correct" and "incorrect" about language, dictionary editors "described" how the language was being used. By the early 1990s the Random House dictionary listed gender-neutral words like chairperson as well as gender specific ones such as herstory, and spellings like "womyn." This is what lexicographers call "word choice." As words begin to appear in the media they note down citations in the popular press like the example above. Political cartoons and advertisements are another source for citations. When a particular word appears in "reputable" papers dictionary editors will finally accept it.

The debate over this word is a lively one. Many camps claim it as their own and several think it quite clever to eliminate the male association and promote feminism or lesbianism in one fell swoop. Others say it's mind-bogglingly childish and it makes their head hurt to think about it. Yet at the same time a number of people point out that this is another form of sexism. No matter what anyone's preference is, only time will tell whether or not this word becomes a linguistic preference in the English language and the best way to find out is keep checking those dictionaries.

Sources:

Online Etymological Dictionary

UrbanDictionary.com

Word Use and Abuse

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