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Stephen Lewis

The word “widower” to describe a man whose wife has died does not seem right.

Its female counterpart of “widow” is clear enough, but why add an “er” suffix to designate the male’s loss of a spouse?

In modern English, that “er” (sometimes “or’) suffix usually turns a verb into a noun so that rather than representing the action expressed by the verb, the noun now designates the person doing the action.

Thus, “sing” becomes “singer” or “instruct” yields “instructor,” and so forth. Clearly, something else is going on in the widow/widower combination.

“Widow” derives from Old English “widewe,,” which itself has Indo-European roots meaning “empty.”

Apparently, it was generally applied to women left empty after the death of their spouses because in an actuarial sense they more usually outlived their male spouses who were older and out killing each other in war. In any case, by the 14th century, the “er” suffix was added to provide gender specificity.

Which brings us back to where we started, and that is, why that “er” suffix was added to designate the male gender of the surviving spouse.

An answer, interestingly, can be found in the expression that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Google tells me this expression was first identified in 1670 as a form of an old proverb.

A variant of that proverb substitutes “sauce” for “good” producing “what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”

That early suggestion of gender equality is perhaps remarkable but not much help yet on the “er” question.

We are, however, edging toward an answer. In Old English, the word for “goose” comes from a Germanic source, “gans.” The trail gets a bit murky here, but it seems a suffix of “dra” was added to distinguish the female “gans” from the male “gansdra” so that the latter gender designation became established.

Quite apart from the goose/gander analogy, for some reason in the 14th century in the language stream that includes German and English, a suffix similar to “dra” was added to “widewe” to form “widewa.” The vowel sound at the end of the word added the syllable that later became the “er” suffix with which we began.

All of which is interesting, and perhaps correct, but does not explain why as best I can determine the “widow/widower” combination is the only one in English that applies the “er” suffix to indicate male gender. Its cousin “gander” to designate a male goose appears in dictionaries and is of use among those who deal with geese as farm animals. But the word in that sense does not occur in general conversation

Instead “gander” in dated, informal usage is a noun to indicate taking a look at something, that is “to take a gander” at that thing. I vaguely recall hearing that expression in an old movie, or two, but not recently. The usage makes some sense, at any rate, when you think of the long neck of a goose swiveling around to see something.

I’m not sure where this trip into the etymological weeds has led other than to suggest that gender was and is of primary interest not only to animal professionals such as farmers, but to all of us.

However, when we deal linguistically with human gender, we seem to trip all over ourselves as in the current search for a gender-neutral alternative to the he/she combination.

Perhaps the simplest answer to why “widow” became “widower” was to designate marriageability, that the male surviving spouse was again in the market for a new mate.

That is a question for social historians.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose books include three mysteries set in northern Michigan, and his recently published memoir, ”Dementia, A Love Story.” Reach Lewis at lewisstephen409@gmail.com or visit stevesblog.stephenlewisonline.net

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