Friday, March 16, 2012


Midwife \MID-wahyf\ , noun;
1. A person trained to assist women in childbirth
2. A person or thing that produces aids in producing something new or different

You'd think that since I already had my baby I'd be over looking up websites about giving birth, but no. I guess since I had a rather unconventional birth I'm just still curious about how the whole thing works. All this reading, of course, got me thinking about where the word came from. Turns out it's a combination of two relics of Old English.

This word dates to the 1300's as "woman assisting." It's a Middle English compound of mid + wif ("with" + "woman"), the idea being it was the woman with you during childbirth.

Mid is one of several cognates in the Germanic family tree that all mean "with," including Old English. Whatever Proto-Germanic word spawned them ultimately derives from the same Proto-Indo-European base that became Greek meta. In Middle English mid coexisted with wið, though they were not synonyms of each other (in fact, in some cases they were opposites). By the time Modern English evolved, with had completely replaced mid except in rare holdouts like midwife.

Wif became wife in Modern English, but in Middle and Old English it meant "woman" from Proto-Germanic *wiban, which is of uncertain origin. It may come from Proto-Indo-European *weip- ("to twist, turn, wrap") or *ghwibh- ("shame" or "pudenda"). Neither is considered particularly convincing. Here's something I didn't know: an old wives' tale preserves this sense of wife = "woman." So it really means "old women's tale." Egg on my face.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    If anyone is need of a good linguistic battery, please check out the CYCLE (Curtiss-Yamada Comprehensive Language Evaluation). The CYCLE was developed by Dr. Susan Curtiss, who is most famous for working with Genie, and Dr. Jeni Yamada. To learn more about the test please visit the website.