The title will probably be recognized at once: it is part of the last line of Kipling’s poem “If.” Unfortunately, Kipling’s only son John never became a man; he was killed in 1918 at the age of eighteen, a casualty of his father’s overblown patriotism. Our chances to reach consensus on the origin of the word man are not particularly high either.
Like a host of other researchers, I have my pet theory concerning the origin of man and made it public several years ago, but the unsuspecting public has passed it by (or perhaps the malevolent world only feigned indifference). This circumstance and the habit of the Internet to recycle with pomp and authority discarded explanations would not have induced me to fight (re-fight) an old battle, but it so happened that, while looking through my post on the etymology of wife, I noticed a question about Latin vir “man,” which I have never answered, and a suggestion that the word wife might have something to do with the idea of covering the female during sex rather than hiding the bride’s face under a veil during the wedding ceremony. This conjecture seems unlikely to me not only because it has no support among the words for wife in the languages of the world (I cannot find an analog of the woman being called this for the reason proposed) but also for linguistic reasons; it fails to account for the neuter gender of the ancient word. I should also repeat what I have said many times in the past. Comments are always welcome. However, when they are offered long after the appearance of the post but appear on the page for that post, I may never see them, for, obviously, in preparation for my monthly “gleanings” I cannot be expected to look through more than five hundred essays on the off-chance that something new has turned up somewhere. The hayrick is huge, and the needle is all but invisible. So please, whatever your suggestions may be, use the rubric “Comments” after the most recent posts.
Before coming to the point (and, among other things, discussing the query about Latin vir), I should repeat very briefly what I once wrote about wife. Wife at one time meant “woman,” not “female spouse,” as it still does in midwife, fishwife, old wives’ tales, and the like. Numerous etymologies of this word have been offered, but none of them could explain why the noun denoting “female” was neuter, as German Weib “woman” still is: das Weib. Without overcoming this grammatical difficulty, we will get nowhere, so I suggested that our word once designated a group of people belonging to a woman’s kin and containing the root of the pronoun we and a suffix (Indo-European –bh, as in the name of the Scandinavian family goddess Sif). Later, I reasoned, the word began to be applied to an individual female but retained the gender of the ancient collective noun.
Details can be found in the old post and in my long 2011 article. Here they are relevant only in so far as my reconstruction of the history of man bears some resemblance to what I think was the origin of wife. For comparison, I can refer to the scholarship on the word god (see a series of fairly recent posts devoted to it). In Germanic, only the plural (neuter plural!) gods existed. At one time, the gods were viewed as a multitude; the concept of a singular god dates to a much later period. The Scandinavians distinguished between two divine families: the Æsir and the Vanir. They had no trouble calling Thor an As and Frey a Van (the Icelandic spelling has been simplified) and did not need a term for “god in general.”
Words like man and woman testify to a high level of abstraction. Boy and girl, male and female are different. When a baby comes into the world, its sex must be defined, so that a label is needed. J. Hammond Trumbull, an American anthropological linguist of the past epoch, noted that man as an individual homo is untranslatable into any Native American language, for “distinction is always made between native and foreigner, chief and counselor, male and female,” and so on. From the modern point of view, the world of our ancestors was overclassified and tended to avoid abstractions. Therefore, while reading old literature, we notice with surprise or amusement that everything and everybody has a name. A sword, a cauldron, a rock—nothing remained nameless. It was practically impossible to say “A tall farmer carrying an ax walked past a lake with his son,” for one expected something like: “A tall man called William carried the ax Hewer and was seen walking with his son Jack past Lake Fishpond.” Although man did once refer to a homo (as follows even from the English word woman, originally a compound: wif + man), this must have been a later development. In searching for the etymology of man, we should have a clear picture of what we are trying to find.
Not only Germanic man presents great difficulties. No hypothesis on the origin of Greek ánthropos, familiar to us from anthropology “the study of man,” and Russian chelovek (stress on the last syllable) can be called fully satisfactory. Latin vir fared better. Vir is most likely related to vis “force, strength; a large quantity,” yet that is all we can say with certainty. Incidentally, vir had a Germanic cognate, and its traces are still discernible in the noun world, an ancient compound wer + eald “the time of man.” Under the circumstances that have not been fully clarified, the temporal reference gave way to the spatial one, namely “the place where people live.” A more exotic compound is werewolf “man-wolf,” a popular character from old stories, someone who assumes a wolf’s shape and behaves like a wolf. Those interested in this subject should consult works on lycanthropy (Greek lycos means “wolf,” and ánthropos has been mentioned above). Only homo seems to be transparent. Language historians are agreed that homo is akin to Latin humus “ground.” If this conclusion is correct, the word reflects the notion that humans were made from soil.
Engl. man has related forms in all the Germanic and numerous non-Germanic Indo-European languages. The most interesting of them is the name Mannus, mentioned by Tacitus, according to whom Mannus was a god venerated by the “Teutons.” Unfortunately, no myth about this deity has come down to us, but Tacitus is a reliable source. Also, it is possible that such tribal Germanic names as Alemanni and Marcomanni retained the vestiges of the cult of Mannus (more tangible traces of this cult have also been found), but perhaps manni is the Latinized plural of the word for “man.” In any case, Mannus cannot be ignored in the search for the origin of the word man. The grammatical affiliation of that word presents serious difficulties. Here we should only take into account the circumstance that in the Old Germanic languages every noun belonged to some declension. Occasionally the forms vacillated between two declensions, but the recorded forms of man show traces of four or even five declensions. Apparently, the speakers felt most uncertain about how to use that noun.
The best-known Germanic word for “man” was guma, which sounds like Latin homo, and indeed the two must have been related. Is there a connection between homo ~ guma and man? An old etymology combined them and produced the protoform ghmonon, a good but rather improbable hybrid. A hundred and fifty years ago scholars often yielded to what might be called the Indo-European temptation. Thus, girl, probably a rather late borrowing from Low German, in which it had no respectable parentage, was once traced to ghwerghw, a cross between the German noun and Greek parthénos “woman.” One shudders at the thought that the primitive ghmonon called his baby girl ghwerghw. But then what do we know?
To be continued.
Image credits: (1) Old Slavic pagan stone statue. (c) tiler84 via iStock. (2) John Lockwood Kipling and Rudyard Kipling circa 1890. University of Sussex Library Special Collections. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) The Bride by Gertrude Kasebier, 1902. Public domain via WikiArt.