A popular bit of etymology cropped up on HH this week: the fact that the “were–” of werewolf literally means “man”.
This is something that we’ve touched on before on HH, in a blog about the original etymological meanings of man (“human”), woman (“wife-man”), boy (“servant, aide”), and girl (“child”).
It’s also a story that you might have spotted in The Accidental Dictionary—but for the uninitiated, here’s a quick recap...
First things first, man hasn’t always meant simply “man”. Like the “man” in mankind and manslaughter, back in the Old English period man chiefly meant simply “human being”. If you wanted to talk specifically about a male human being, you had to use a word that’s long since fallen out of use: wer.
And it’s that word that sits, fossilized in the language, at the root of werewolf.
And whereas people continued talking and writing about werewolves, wer on its own disappeared from the language as man became the more dominant word.
The opposite of wer, meanwhile, was wif, which originally meant “woman” but eventually came to be used only of married women; like wer, its original, more general sense still survives in ancient compounds like housewife and midwife.