Etymology of “Midwife”

1 Apr

Words are weird concoctions that are fun to tease out.  Since I have no less than three friends who are expected to give birth within the next month, I’ve been thinking about midwifery lately.  “Midwife” is such a strange word – without any help, it sounds a bit like the midwife is in the middle of the wife.  Which, according to the laws of physics that I am aware of*, is not technically possible.

The Online Etymology Dictionary is a much better interpreter of the word than I am:

midwife – c.1300, “woman assisting,” literally “woman who is ‘with’ ” (the mother at birth), from M.E. mid “with” + wif “woman”. Cognate with German Beifrau.

For an incredible article about midwifery through history, read this.

* I could be wrong.  My husband just recently informed me of the fact that time doesn’t always move the same and totally messed up what I thought I knew about the universe.

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3 Responses to “Etymology of “Midwife””

  1. thoughtsfromthefrontier 02/04/2011 at 9:10 #

    In Puritan New England society, a midwife had very high status. Among a people where a birth was an event to be attended if physically possible, the midwife was the woman in command.

    • janeaugestine 21/05/2012 at 5:08 #

      I have been pondering this term over the last few days as I have been reading about midwifery for a Women’s Studies Course:

      In terms of the historical role of a midwife, the word strikes a different tone for me. The job of a midwife before the era of medicalization was not only to attend to the birth, but also to be a “social support” postpartum. This was a huge facet of the job. This meant looking after the woman’s other children, helping with the home, food preparation and other domestic issues. In this sense, it seems to me that “mid” refers to the ‘part-way/middle/substitute female’ — the person who takes over the domestic role when the childbearing woman has given birth and is requiring the assistance of another to run her home and take care of other children …

      Historically, midwifery was much more than simply being a birth attendant. For further reading, Women’s Health In Canada, chapter 19 discusses the role of Aboriginal midwives in this context.

      • Eden Hemming 24/05/2012 at 9:03 #

        Thanks for your comment! I’m definitely going to go find that book…

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