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There are lots of words that have male and female forms, and usually there are alternate suffixes to the words which indicate the gender; for example, "waiter" vs. "waitress", "mister" vs. "mistress", etc. The one that has always puzzled me, though, is "widow" and "widower". Following the form of the previous examples, I understand "widower" for men--but why the form of the word with no suffix for women? Why isn't a woman called a "widowess"?

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I think that this has something to do with the fact that female widows were historically much more common than male widowers, but I don't really know for sure. –  JSBձոգչ Apr 13 '11 at 20:03

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up vote 16 down vote accepted

I suspect because the phrase was only needed for women and widower is a much later literary invention.

Widow had a lot of legal implications for property, titles and so on — if the survivor was a woman these got complicated before women had as many rights. If the survivor was a man in the middle ages it didn't really make much difference — he held the property anyway. A similar question came up about illegitimate girl children — there is no word because there was no legal need to consider them.

English generally doesn't have many genders anymore and those that have survived are where it was necessary to know the actual sex. So "actress" once had rather more of a euphemism role (like the modern 'model actress whatever') — where knowing their sex is relatively important.

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So bastard applies(d?) only to men? –  apoorv020 Apr 13 '11 at 20:11
    
Apparently, there are quotes in Shakespeare "female bastard" so there was a need to distinguish and wasn't a specific alternate term –  mgb Apr 13 '11 at 20:20
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@TK Kocheran. The er ending is generally one who does. I suspect looking for a male version people thought of farmer, farrier etc and decided that 'er' = man –  mgb Apr 14 '11 at 2:31
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@TK Kocheran Lol, I sometimes have wondered whether the "widower" should be the one who killed the spouse, making the widow. :-) –  Ken Taylor Apr 14 '11 at 3:42
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@Ken Taylor: it could also work as a comparative term: Judy has outlived 3 husbands, Claire has only out lived one. Judy is widower than Claire. :-) –  Matt Эллен Apr 14 '11 at 7:27

The term widower is obviously an extension of "widow":

mid-14c., extended from widow (Etymonline)

"Widow" is old enough to be credited to Middle English "widewe" and Old English "widuwe".

My guess for the term starting with women is the economical independence that men have been granted throughout history. The strength of polygyny over the rarer polyandry also implies that the death of a wife wouldn't have altered a man's married state due to his having more than one. The need for a male counterpart just wasn't as great.

Of note, I have rarely heard "widow" refer to a man who has lost his spouse but it seems ridiculously uncommon (and thus potential errors) and most of the definitions I saw specifically referred to women. The shift back to gender neutral language may effect this. Also, "widowed" is correct for both genders (as opposed to "widowered".)

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This is a great answer, especially with the etymological information. I wish I could accept more than one answer as right. +1 at any rate. –  Ken Taylor Apr 14 '11 at 1:10
    
I'm surprised it's that early - I would have guessed C17. Needed for heroines to fall for in restoration plays –  mgb Apr 14 '11 at 1:54
    
I don't see any mention of to widow as a verb form. I personally wouldn't see anything wrong with a man saying the accident that killed his wife widowed him. Well, any wrongness would relate to how much I cared about him and / or his [ex-wife?], not his grammar. –  FumbleFingers Apr 14 '11 at 2:37

Historically men would die before their spouses because of their involvement in war and there were not so many men predeceased by their wives hence the term widow was applied to women whose husbands have died. The term widower would have been used later in life when a need arose to distinguish between a man and woman whose spouse has died.

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Women died young too and often the cause of death was childbirth. The husbands who were left living, what were they called? –  Mari-Lou A Jun 23 at 8:16

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