The History Behind 3 English Words for "Woman"

Today is International Women's Day! In honor of this holiday, let's learn about the history behind three common words we use to refer to women.

1. Girl

Today, "girl" refers to a female child. However, before the 16th century, it usually just meant "child." To get an idea of why this might be, look at this painting from 1637. How many boys do you see?

A painting called "Five Eldest Children of Charles I" by Anthony van Dyck. There's a baby, three children in dresses, and a child in pants.
"Five Eldest Children of Charles I" by Anthony van Dyck

Most people will say "one." But the second child from the left (the one wearing a red dress) is actually a boy named "James." He's wearing a dress, because at the time, he wasn't old enough to wear pants like his brother Charles in the middle.

Traditionally, little boy and girls wore similar clothing and didn't look that different. Since it wasn't totally necessary to differentiate between them, "girl" was enough to refer to both.

2. Lady

These days, "lady" is another word for a woman. But did you know that this word is most likely related to "loaf"?

Bread on a brown wooden table.
Two loaves of bread

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "lady" originally meant "female head of household." It's a combination of "loaf" and "dige" (meaning "someone who kneads dough"). Meanwhile, "lord"– which originally meant "male head of household" – comes from "loaf" and "ward" (meaning "guard").

So "lady" originally meant "someone who makes bread" and "lord" "someone who protects bread."

3. Woman

"Woman" is what we call female adults. The word is a combination of "wif" and "man." However, it doesn't mean "the wife of a man"!

  • "Wif" originally referred to adult females in general. This meaning still lives on in Scottish English as well as a few words in modern English. For example, the word "midwife" refers to a woman – married or not – who helps other women give birth.
  • "Man" usually meant "person" or "human being" in Old English.

"Wif" and "man" combined into "wifmann," "wiman," and eventually "woman." So "woman" actually means "adult female person."

Happy International Women’s Day!

We hope you enjoyed these fun facts about the words "girl," "lady," and "woman." To learn more vocabulary or practice speaking English, book an online English lesson on Engoo!