Awoo, everybody. Welcome to the latest installment of Fun with Etymology! Last time we talked about the words love and pussy, but we will be scaling back to just one word this time. Today we’re going to talk about werewolves and where they come from (etymologically – we all know that geographically they come from Canada and are named Ginger and Brigitte). As always, I’ll be putting in bold our words of interest, in the hopes that I make this somewhat followable. We’ll also discuss certain gender issues that the etymology of werewolf poses – why aren’t Ginger and Brigitte wifwolves, for instance? So gird your loins, because we are going right into it!
Seriously, check out Ginger Snaps if you haven't already. It's a ridiculously good movie.
Let’s get the wolf part out of the way first, since it’s easy. English wolf derives from Old English wulf (related to Old Norse ulfr, Old Saxon wulf, Old Frisian wolf, Gothic wulfs and Old High German wolf). All of these derived from Proto-Germanic *wulfaz, which derives from Proto Indo-European *wḷqwo- from which Latin lupus derives and which may have also meant “thing that tears.” All of these, unsurprisingly, mean wolf. It’s really not a very complex etymology on this end of things.
The were- of werewolf is where things get interesting. It's still a simple etymology, but all the real work in the word happens here. In modern English we have the words man and woman to refer to male and female humans. However, in Old English man was a non-gender specific noun that meant a person (it also was used to mark the passive voice in certain verb constructions). Old English had words to refer to men and women, though: wer and wif, which could be used on their own or combined with man to form wereman and wifman (wifman is the ancestor of the word woman). Wif is also the ancestor of the word wife. Wer is cognate across many early medieval Germanic languages, as well as to Latin vir (man), from which we get the word virile.
In werewolf specific context, the earliest recorded use of the word dates to c.1000, in a text of the Laws of Cnut, which mentions a werewulf.
Related words in other languages include Dutch werewolf, Middle High German werewolf, modern German Werwolf, West Frisian waerûl, Danish and Norwegian varulv and Swedish varulf (these three probably from Old Norse, perhaps an unattested *varulfr from which Old Northern French had garwall, which later evolved into guaroul and later garoul, leading to the etymologically redundant modern French loupgarou [wolfwerewolf]).
Now, what comes next will be a fun exploration of the gender implications that stem from the etymology and how they intersect with misogynistic associations werewolf stories have in our culture. Fun, right?
So, one of the earliest surviving werewolf narratives is the Lay of Bisclavret, written by Marie de France in the 12th century (she claimed to have translated it from Breton). In this story a nobleman, Bisclavret, happens to be a werewolf, and he must keep his clothes in a safe place while he is a wolf so he can become human again. He makes the mistake of confiding this to his wife, who has wondered where he disappears to. Alarmed, she has a knight who is in love with her steal her husband's clothes so he can't change back. Nobody is able to find the man, and the woman marries the knight.
The king's encounters Bisclavret and discovers that he is very friendly, gentle, and noble and decides to keep him as a pet. Some time later the knight is invited to an audience with the king, and Bisclavret attacks. Since the wolf has never acted that way before, the king and his court believe the knight has somehow wronged the wolf. The king brings Bisclavret back to where he used to live. The wife brings gifts to the king, and Bisclavret attacks her on sight, tearing off her nose.
Upon the realization that this woman is the knight's wife and formerly the wife of Bisclavret, the king has her detained and tortured for information. She tells the truth and yields the clothes, and the king allows Bisclavret to transform in peace. The wife and the knight are exiled, and all of her female descendants are born without noses
The concept of the werewolf in Europe originates in northern European paganism, though some Slavic and Balkan influence may be present. Taking on the aspect of the wolf as part of a pagan warrior culture would be reinterpreted post-Christianization into actual transformation. This would, when witchcraft became a concern to Christian Europe, feed into a small spate of werewolf accusations among the witchcraft accusations.
Most early werewolf stories include some element of female wickedness, but none involve women as werewolves. True to the word's etymology, most werewolf stories even today are about men who transform into wolves. Where there are women werewolves (I like to imagine that they dislike the appellation werewolf and prefer to be called wifwolves [pronounced weev-wolves] in order to not be erased as a category by the lycanthropatriarchy), their femininity and their transformation are intimately related. Early stories of wifwolves were often witches who used magic to turn into wolves; it wasn't until the Victorian period that more modern wifwolves began to appear in literature, and until recently that they began to approach anything resembling common.
As the opportunity to be portrayed as lycanthropes has opened to women, so have the negative implications linking women to werewolfism. Jokes like this are not uncommon:
Things you shouldn't say to a werewolf: Your mama's so dumb she says "I am wolf, hear me bark!"
I figured out why there are so few werewolves. Legends and Hollywood say they like to feast on attractive virgins. So they starved.
Not cool. But that's the thing. The modern werewolf legend, which involves the full moon (a typically once-a-month event) and thus the possibility of "lunacy" (not so distant from charging a woman with hysteria), encourages sexist associations. Werewolves are bloodthirsty beasts, maneaters who will make a bloody godawful mess, which transform once a month. The associations with menstruation are strong - and more often than not used to limit and perpetuate sexist views. Movies like Ginger Snaps have begun to play with these associations in more positive ways, though.
While the werewolf tradition has long involved violence directed at women or the association of the negative characteristics of werewolves with femininity and womanhood, that is not ultimately a result of the etymology of the word. The etymology of the word does, however, align with the dominance of male lycanthropes in media, though this could be a coincidence which stems from a general lack of awareness about the etymology of the word. Maybe we can make wifwolf happen, though. If you have story ideas involving the intersection of feminism and lycanthropy, or even just want a werewolf who happens to be a woman, try out wifwolf. Work it into the fabric of lycanthrope society. Google returns ~16300 results for wifwolf, but I think we can explode that and make it a thing. And why not? Raising the visibility of women who transform into wolves (said transformation being bread and butter in certain genres) can only be a good thing.