Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: woman / mujer / femme / dona


Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

A big part of my life in Spain was about filling out forms. When I arrived in 2005, I had to deal with residency issues, nationality issues and ID-issuing issues. It was always frustrating and occasionally traumatic but it did get to the point that I could enter all relevant information into the casillas [: little houses, i.e. empty fields] while half-asleep.

This was not the case the first time. The first time I tried to fill out a form, I had to ask the woman at the counter what my gender was because I wasn’t sure. The options were H or M and I could think of lots of possible words those letters represented.

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My initial thought was hombre [man] and mujer [woman] but there was also hembra [female animal] and macho [male animal]. It turned out to be the former, but it felt wrong to mark myself as M when I’d been F my whole life (and therefore, distinctly not M). Languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

EN → woman — an adult human female. ORIGIN Old English wīfmon [wife], related to Dutch wijf and German Weib.

ES → mujerPersona del sexo femenino. [Person of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin mulĭer, –ēris [mistress, wife, woman].

FR → femmeÊtre humain du sexe féminin. [Human being of female gender.] ORIGIN Latin femina [female, woman].

CAT → donaPersona del sexe femení. [Person of the female gender.] ORIGIN Latin dŏmna, contraction of dŏmĭna [lady, wife, lover], feminine of dŏmĭnus [owner, lord, master].

English note: as a person who hopes never to be a wife, this bums me out.

Spanish note: “mistress” is the first definition! All I can say is, “!!!!!!!!!!!”

French note: Femme is a word that many Americans, myself included, regularly pronounce wrong. We say /fem/ in phrases like femme fatale, but in French it’s more /fam/. This is similar to a Catalan annoyance I have. Again, languages shouldn’t be so confusing.

Catalan note: following the previous note, the plural is dones, but /ˈdɔnəs/.

Today’s winner is Catalan since it isn’t overtly sexist and I like it best and I run things around here.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

13 thoughts on “Word Mystery: woman / mujer / femme / dona

  1. I agree with you on this one though the French one isn’t too sexist either. I was totally shocked by the English and Spanish origins of the word female…It does show the dominance of men in our culture for years…(Suzanne)

    • I don’t generally think about gender equality issues (too depressing) but WMs like this one really drive home how ingrained in the very language sexism is. I don’t know how to correct the situation either, but I guess recognizing it is the first step.

  2. I like the Catalan as well. “master” ha!

  3. Your references to Catalan remind me…..A couple of years ago I reviewed the book Renaissance People (http://www.amazon.com/Renaissance-People-Lives-Shaped-Modern/dp/1606060783) as part of my presentation at the ALA Annual Conference. One of the chapters was about the man who “invented” Spanish. Who invents a major language? (Aside from Esperanto….or Klingon or Elvish or whatever….there’s a book about those languages, too.) Anyway, the “invention” is more accurately codification. There were many regional languages/dialects in Spain. He chose the dialect that evolved into Spanish as the “official” language. I’m not explaining this very smoothly and I don’t have the book at hand. (And it’s early and I haven’t had enough coffee.) I’ll look it up when I get to the library today.

    • Ohhh, that book sounds interesting! Is it? I’ll have to see if it’s at the NYPL next time I go to the US. If it’s as full of good info as you suggest, I may have to buy a copy.

  4. Gender and sex are not the same thing. The fact that your translation of ‘sexo’ was gender and not sex, is itchy. I get it; if you don’t care you don’t. Still, I feel enough to comment on the matter, more so since the Spanish Royal Academy fought against the use of gender to define the ‘self identity of an individual in relation to society or culture’; and lost. It hasn’t admitted it, as it is the ROYAL Academy, but it is a big deal for some. And, not a single of your original (untranslated) definitions use gender as synonym for sex.

    • You know, I actually thought about this difference when I was translating the definitions and made the change based on a personal preference. Your comment has made me think about where that bias comes from, and the answer is too long to get into here so I’m going to write a separate post dedicated to the issue you’ve raised. Thanks for the inspiration (and for making me question myself)!

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