Impossible to Define This Word?

Let me help with that.

“Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” the senator asked the female judge, a candidate for justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, on March 22, 2022.

“Can I provide a definition? No,” the candidate responded. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?” the senator asked.

“Not in this context, I’m not a biologist,” the judge replied.[1]

I realize that Supreme Court candidates are grilled mercilessly prior to confirmation, so I sympathize with the judge, who was thrown for a loop by a difficult question completely outside her field of expertise. I mean, let’s be real here. For example . . .

  • Would you ask me for directions to my house? Good luck! I’m no cartographer.
  • Should I be expected to tell you if it’s sunny or raining outside? Excuse me, do you think I’m a meteorologist?
  • How does one flush a toilet? C’mon, man, I’m not a plumber, for pity’s sake!

I’m no biologist either, but I know a thing or two about the English language. And being a married man,[2] I know enough about women to assure you that I ain’t one. But I digress.

Allow me to help the good judge by explaining for her what a woman is. I’ll restrict my comments to the realms of lexicography and etymology.[3]

Okay, here we go, your honor! Are you ready? I’ll type slowly, because this can be pretty hard:

 A woman is “AN ADULT FEMALE PERSON.”[4]

Let’s break it down further: An (indefinite article) adult (as opposed to a child or youth) female (as opposed to a male) person (as opposed to an animal, plant, fish, etc.).

That’s the lexicographical answer. Are you still with me, your honor? Good! I know you’re in uncharted territory now, so when you catch your breath, we’ll look at etymology. Fasten your seatbelt!

Woman has been a part of the English language since  approximately AD 1250. It can be traced back several centuries before that. It probably developed out of wumman or womman (before AD 1200), and before that from the Old English wimman (c. AD 1000), which probably evolved from wīfman (before c. AD 766), a compound of wīf (woman) and man (human being).[5] (You might notice, incidentally, that the word wife originated from wīf—woman). Not exactly rocket science—I mean, biology—now, is it?

I do sincerely hope this little tutorial helps your honor in addressing matters of jurisprudence, biology, or simple word definitions going forward. We don’t want you to be caught off guard again. You’re welcome!


[1] Source: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ketanji-brown-jackson-bidens-supreme-court-pick-refuses-to-define-the-word-woman

[2] I’m married to a woman, by the way, which, in the history of the world until very recently no one would have thought to question. But now, I recognize, we are much more enlightened.

[3] That is, dictionaries (lexicography) and word origins (etymology).

[4] Merriam-Webster. 2020. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Frederick C. Mish, ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc.

[5] Barnhardt, Robert, ed. 1995. The Barnhardt Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: HarperCollins (p. 847). Partridge, Eric. 1983. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Greenwich House, (p. 776).

 

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