Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The virtuous werewolf

The virtuous werewolf

Once upon a time (or so linguists believe) there was the word *wi-ro-. It meant man in Proto-Indo-European. Over the years it’s given birth to a disparate batch of word-children.

One of those words is the noun virtue, which appeared in English about 1200, meaning moral excellence. It came from a Latin word meaning courage, manliness, high character. The following century saw the beginnings of the related word virtuous, meaning characterized by vigor, strength, or valiance. It took two hundred years for virtuous to mean having peerless moral qualities. And by 1610 another word was born into this family of words through Italian: virtuoso, originally meaning scholar or connoisseur, & shifting by 1743 to mean one with peerless artistic skill or talent. 

Two *wi-ro-born words many of us hope are being re-conceptualized in this MeToo era are virile & virility, meaning manly & manly strength respectively. Virile & virility showed up in the 1400s & 1500s through Latin & Middle French.

When *wi-ro- made its way into Germanic languages, one branch of its meaning became generalized to the human race, human existence, or the affairs of life & became the Old English word world. After a few hundred years of wallowing about in the minds & usage of Old English speakers, it oozed through meanings like the world of humans, the physical world (as opposed to the spiritual world), & morphed its way into its many modern meanings, one of which is the earth.

Another branch of this word continued to mean man in Old English. When Old English speakers added their version of *wi-ro- (man) to their word wulf (wolf) they came up with werewolf

Here’s hoping in the next few centuries as these words grow & adopt new meanings, they’ll encourage a bit more virtue, & virtuosity among all humanity & add some gentler, more flexible understandings to what it is to be a man — or for that matter, a human.

Thoughts? Please sling them into the comments section.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.


  1. I always wondered where the "were" came from in werewolf. That means when people talk about werepigs and wererabbits, they're using the prefix correctly. I love the idea of wererabbits. I'm not sure they'd be virtuous, though. :-)

    1. Hi Anne -- I suppose virtue is in the eye of the beholder.