« previous post | next post »

"A person, usually a woman, who is trained to assist women in childbirth."  AHDEL

But not always a woman:

Men rarely practice midwifery for cultural and historical reasons. In ancient Greece, midwives were required by law to have given birth themselves, which prevented men from joining their ranks. In 17th century Europe, some barber surgeons, all of whom were male, specialized in births, especially births requiring the use of surgical instruments. This eventually developed into a professional split, with women serving as midwives and men becoming obstetricians. Men who work as midwives are called midwives (or male midwives, if it is necessary to identify them further) or accoucheurs; the term midhusband (based on a misunderstanding of the etymology of midwife) is occasionally encountered, mostly as a joke. In previous centuries, they were called man-midwives in English.


I have often wondered about the meaning and origins of the term "midwife".  My wonderment was piqued recently by several comments on this post:  "Wondrous blue" (5/9/22).

Ronan Maye

This reminds me of something I noticed in an Old English class: a lot of cognates with modern English are misleading (false-friends?) like the tweet above (i.e. blue referring to color). For example, the word midwife sounds in modern English like it refers to a woman who helps other women give birth but it just breaks down into "mid-wife" which just means "with-woman." Mid is a cognate of German "mit" for with, and "wife" just meant woman. Another one is how "mann" (man) referred to any person and not specifically males, while the word for a male person was "were" which we still have in "werewolf."

Philip Taylor

I do not understand, Ronan, why you suggest that "the word midwife sounds in modern English like it refers to a woman who helps other women give birth" — nothing in its spelling, pronunciation or any other aspect conveys to me the idea of "a woman who helps other women give birth", even thought it has now come to mean exactly that. I have always assumed that it comes from "mit wife", and therefore means someone/thing who is with a wife, but nothing in that postulated etymology suggests that the wife need be in the act of giving birth.


Ronan Maye

Hello Philip, I just meant that to someone who doesn't know the germanic roots of the word midwife (myself in the past) the "wife" half of "midwife" seems to refer to the one who is helping the mother give birth rather than the mother herself, and mid's meaning is not transparent to someone who hasn't studied German, Dutch, or Old English since it has been replaced by "with" in modern English. To most English speakers, mid sounds like "middle," so "midwife" just seems like it refers to a woman who is in the middle of something (perhaps the process of the birth), but this is misleading for two reasons: mid doesn't refer to middle and midwife it is not a gendered occupational term like actress, waitress, etc. It is just a non-gendered term for anyone that helps a mother during the birth. Once I learned the germanic roots of the word, its meaning subsequently seemed obvious. I have tested this out on some people who are not interested in languages or etymology and they assumed midwife referred specifically to women who help other women with the birthing process.

How to adjudicate the difference of opinion?

Here's a start:

[Middle English midwif : probably mid, with (from Old English; see me- in Indo-European roots) + wif, woman (from Old English wīf; see wife).]
Word History: The word midwife was formed in Middle English from two elements, mid and wife. At first glance, the meaning of wife would would seem to be clear. However, wife often meant simply "woman" in general in Middle English, not specifically "female spouse" as it most often does in Modern English. The other element in midwife, the prefix mid-, is probably the Middle English preposition and adverb mid, meaning "together with." Thus a midwife was literally a "with-woman"—that is, "a woman who is with another woman and assists her in giving birth." The etymology of obstetric is even more descriptive of a midwife's role. Its Latin source obstetrīx, "a midwife," is formed from the verb obstāre, "to stand in front of," and the feminine suffix -trīx; the obstetrīx would thus literally stand in front of the baby as it was being born.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

The above discussion is all well and good, a quite satisfying inquiry into the meaning of a familiar, yet somehow exotic-sounding word.  Now, what I would like to know is what the man / woman / child in the street who has no linguistic instincts or training thinks of when they hear the word "midwife".


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 7:24 am

    As soon as I pushed the "publish" button on this post, I thought that I should also write a companion piece on "nurse". Most likely I will do so in a day or two, after we've had a chance to think this one through.

  2. Jake Wildstrom said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 7:29 am

    Logically, from the actual etymology, a "midhusband" could reasonably (if somewhat jocularly) be a term for someone assisting in the delivery of a child from a trans father.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 8:20 am

    Is there a male variant of "doula"?

  4. Scott P. said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 8:30 am

    "doulos", no doubt.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 9:15 am

    From my Austrian relative, Ines Pruhs:

    Weib" was, of course, used for "woman" some centuries ago and wife is certainly related to it. To argue that mid is derived from "mit" (=with) makes perfect sense to me.

    But whatever it means, I was really happy to have a good midwife during my two births.

  6. Coby L said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 10:37 am

    Weib was the normal German word for 'woman' when Frau meant 'lady' (the female equivalent of Herr, as is still apparent in titles); the famous Dresden church known as the Frauenkirche is so named because is dedicated to "our lady" (i.e. Mary), but in modern German this would be glossed as "women's curch". When Frau replaced Weib as the common word for woman, Dame had to be borrowed from French to replace the former, except in some set expressions such as gnädige Frau.

  7. Philip Anderson said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 12:47 pm

    Although I knew the ‘with’ etymology, it’s natural enough to assume that midwife follows the same pattern as housewife or fishwife (who isn’t necessarily a spouse either), especially when most are women.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 1:35 pm

    mid is derived from "mit"

    Rather, the latter is the former, just sent through the High German consonant shift.

    It's further derived from mid as in middle, but that's a different story.

  9. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 3:15 pm

    Jake Wildstorm: In what way do you find that jokular?

  10. Brett said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

    I just wanted to mention that a woman who turns into a canid* during the full moon should, etymologically, be called a "wifwolf."

    * I was going to write "a woman afflicted with lycanthropy," but lycanthrope is actually yet another gendered term.

  11. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 3:55 pm

    Am I to understand that "Jake Wildstorm" will disparage trans people without any comment.

  12. Bloix said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 4:12 pm

    The OED gives two options for the etymology – a woman by whose means the delivery is effected (in this option, mid means in the midst of an event), or a woman who is with the person giving birth.
    Either way, the "wife" is the midwife herself, not the person giving birth.
    Of course, the OED might be wrong! If it is, surely some knowledgeable person has made the argument for the "[person] with woman" position.
    I've been trying to think of similar preposition-noun formulations and the only one I've come up with is overlord, which I think we'd agree means "a lord who is over [lords]," not "[one] who is over lords." But maybe not!
    And no doubt I've missed other examples.

  13. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 4:35 pm

    A caution against conflating midwives with witches, based on a re-examination of pamphlets and trial records. A quote:

    The theory is that the midwife, the 'cunning woman', and the female folk herbalist were con demned as witches by male physicians in order to keep these women in their places – that is, out oforganized medicine. Consequently, according to these claims, witchcraft persecutions were not just a religious phenomenon, but in reality often a misogynist conspiracy with both societal and economic overtones. …

    On the contrary, the actual historical evidence shows that female healers, with the exception of midwives, were rarely those denounced as witches. While the belief that midwives were witches was widespread, evidence indicates that even the number of practicing midwives that were tried and condemned is not particularly large. Thus, the concept that midwives were witches or witches were midwives appears to be as reliable as the concept that witches flew to sabbaths on the backs of goats or on broomsticks.

    From Davidson, Jane P. (1993) "The Myth of the Persecuted Female Healer," Quidditas: Vol. 14 , Article 9.

    Some of the Catch-22 training and licensing issues for midwives are addressed here, although the main focus is on nursing in France and Germany, with some information about England. There is also a comment on the French terms for midwife on p. 292:

    Minkowski, William L. “Women Healers of the Middle Ages: Selected Aspects of Their History.” American Journal of Public Health, 1992. Vol. 82, No. 2, pp. 288-295.

    The Lancet has relatively recent reports on midwifery and also nursing. The report on midwifery does not seem to be paired with a report on obstetrical and gynecological services by physicians, likely because midwifery and nursing are still predominantly the work of women.


    Scrolling down this messy click-catcher page, I came upon various translations for “midwife.” It looked to me like the English term that began as “with women” is not paralleled in other languages. Are there also differences in meaning (as in, the focus or range of services of the midwife) or did similar concepts of “midwife” nevertheless give rise to dissimilar terms?


  14. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 4:39 pm

    xkcd.com/349 is actually about a thing I tried to do to my gf's laptop that she told his gf.

  15. Terpomo said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 5:26 pm

    Brett, how is lycanthropy a gendered word? ἄνθρωπος can include men and women.
    V, I think it might just be jocular because it's not customary and by analogy to an existing term.

  16. Dara Connolly said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 5:27 pm

    Brett pointed out that:
    lycanthrope is actually yet another gendered term.

    However it occurs to me that a misanthrope is someone who hates humanity in general (unlike the gendered hatred of a misandrist or a misogynist), so is there a case to be made that "anthropy" is non-gendered in English?

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 5:30 pm

    I was looking at a different list of translations of midwife than Barbara Phillips Long, viz. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/midwife#Translations I was particularly struck by the lack of any consistency within Germanic languages: Dutch "vroedvrouw," German "Hebamme," Icelandic (and Faroese) "ljósmóðir," Norwegian "jordmor," and Swedish "barnmorska." None cognate with each other (other than perhaps as to one element of a compound; none "meaning" the same thing if their etymology is taken literally; none even appearing to be intra-Germanic calques, although the Dutch is said to be a calque from the French "sage-femme." Midwifery is quite an ancient trade or craft. It seems implausible that proto-Germanic wouldn't have had word for it because it wasn't a thing yet. Is this an area in which the spooky overtones of the mysteries of birth and death (esp in earlier eras when infant mortality was high and maternal death in childbirth also common) led to euphemism and/or periodic renamings? That's the best hypothesis I can frame and it's admittedly speculative.

  18. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 5:57 pm

    I'm looking for a birthday present for my nephew for his second birthday. Will a bike helmet be ok?

  19. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 6:13 pm

    Finding out that you are pregnant is always traumatic.

  20. V said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 6:17 pm

    but especially so if you have been on hormones for months.

  21. Jake Wildstrom said,

    May 12, 2022 @ 8:08 pm

    Goodness, I step away for a few hours and I'm accused of transphobic implication for echoing the quoted (in the article, from Wikipedia) implication that "midhusband" would be a kind of jokey term for its ungainliness (it has too many syllables, and that "dh" is phonetically awkward), uncommonness, and back-formation. Terpomo's comment is pretty close to my intent.

    Also, Wildstorm is a publishing company (or an imprint of DC Comics these days, I guess). I neither work for them nor share a name with them. My last name, AFAICT (family lore is a bit hazy) is the invention of an unusually creative 19th century Austrian immigration official who didn't like the name we had.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 7:59 am

    I'm mildly interested in why the word for "the art/science/skill of being a midwife" is "midwifery" rather than "midwivery," and trying to figure out if this is part of a larger morphological pattern. There's apparently a rare word "knifery" although "knivery" also seems to exist as an unofficial variant presumably because it seems more intuitive to some. I suppose it may be as simple as the /f/->/v/ pattern in nouns ending (in the singular) in /f/ is specific to plural marking and there's no inherent reason it would carry over to other suffixation situations.

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 11:49 am

    Bloix wrote:

    I've been trying to think of similar preposition-noun formulations and the only one I've come up with is overlord, which I think we'd agree means "a lord who is over [lords]," not "[one] who is over lords." But maybe not!
    And no doubt I've missed other examples.

    Underpass springs to mind. I think there are likely to be quite a few more with under- and over-.

    Not in the same category, but another example of "mid" as "with" in English which I found while looking for more "mid-noun" words is midtholing, a direct calque of compassion.

  24. Rodger C said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 12:22 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: Maybe because it'd interfere with the traditional pronunciation of "midwifery" as "midfrey" (analogously with "Winfrey"), which I've actually heard on film from an English midwife of a certain age.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 12:34 pm

    @Rodger C.: But I think that gets the order reversed — if the /f/ had turned into a /v/ (whether reflected in the spelling or not) via some regular process way back when the suffix was first affixed, presumably "midfrey" as an abbreviated form (I guess analogous to things like bosun-for-boatswain) would not have arisen?

  26. Bloix said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 4:54 pm

    Peter Taylor – I was limiting myself to human being descriptions. If we go beyond that, we have undergarment, overcoat, inner tube, etc.

    Afternoon and forenoon are interesting, though – they DON'T mean the noon before/after [something], they mean [the time] before/after noon. A different construction from all the others.

    PS – The Outerbridge Crossing is a special case – it was named for the then-chairman of the New York Port Authority, Eugenius Harvey Outerbridge. I kid you not.

  27. John Finkbiner said,

    May 13, 2022 @ 5:17 pm

    Bloix – perhaps ‘wingman’ meets your requirements? ‘Sidekick’ almost fits.

  28. Thomas said,

    May 14, 2022 @ 6:17 am

    As a German speaker, the breakdown of midwife into mid + wife makes me think about a lot of similar constructions in German. Mitmensch (with + human = fellow human), Mitbewohner (with + inhabitant = flatmate), Mittäter (with + perpetrator = accomplice). All of these words convey a sense of togetherness where all the subjects involved share some defining property. I am human, you are human, and therefore you are my "Mitmensch". I am not sure if this translates to English mid-wife, though.

  29. Philip Anderson said,

    May 14, 2022 @ 7:47 am

    I think English ‘fellow’, as in your fellow human example, conveys the German sense, but I don’t see that sharedness in midwife.

    I agree there’s a distinction between two types of preposition+X compound: those where the compound is a type of X (the most common), and those where it isn’t (but the compound and X have some relationship).

    An overcoat is a type of coat, but the Underground is not a type of ground. Which is midwife?

  30. Rodger C said,

    May 14, 2022 @ 1:11 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I did in fact write a poor sentence.

  31. Dara Connolly said,

    May 14, 2022 @ 6:43 pm

    Bloix said:

    I've been trying to think of similar preposition-noun formulations and the only one I've come up with is overlord,


  32. Kimball Kramer said,

    May 15, 2022 @ 9:31 am



    I understand you undertake to overthrow my undertaking.

  33. Kimball Kramer said,

    May 15, 2022 @ 9:37 am

    Sorry, but multiple spaces were removed from my original submission. You'll have to add spaces between I, YOU, THROW, and MY to make my submission clear.

  34. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 16, 2022 @ 1:38 am

    Re "-anthropy", Gk anthropos could mean both "man" and "human" (often generically; "Man" or "mankind"), but in modern classicizing compounds it's AFAIK always "human". Cf eg "anthropology" and "anthropomorphic".

  35. Quinn C said,

    May 18, 2022 @ 3:49 pm

    @Jack Wildstrom: As a trans person, I didn't find the content of your initial remark offensive, but it does resemble in form a type of comment that is often made to ridicule the wishes of trans people and other groups for more inclusive language, so it did raise suspicion. I guess it would have profited from a bit more context.

RSS feed for comments on this post