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. Apr 13, 2011 at 20:03
  • historically male widows were much more common. The risk of a women dying in childbirth * the number of children meant that a married women had a 10-20% chance of death during reproductive life
    – mgb
    Sep 24, 2017 at 15:16

5 Answers 5


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 of a marriage was a woman things got complicated before women had many rights. If the survivor was a man in the middle ages it didn't really make much difference as he held all the property anyway.

A similar question came up about illegitimate girl children, there was no word because there was no legal need to consider them.

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

  • So bastard applies(d?) only to men?
    – apoorv020
    Apr 13, 2011 at 20:11
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    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, 2011 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, 2011 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, 2011 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. :-) Apr 14, 2011 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".)

  • 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, 2011 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, 2011 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. Apr 14, 2011 at 2:37
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    Interestingly, widow can be verbed, as an inchoative, usually in the passive: She was widowed last year, meaning her husband died. But widower can't: *He was widowered last year. Likewise, widow can be possessed, by the dead husband: She is Bill's widow. But, again, widower can't be: *He is Mary's widower. Robin Lakoff pointed these (and many other things) out in her book Language and Women's Place. Oct 9, 2014 at 15:18
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    Old English had on equal footing both the masculine widowa and the feminine widowe. It is thus wrong to suggest that the term "started with women".
    – fdb
    Oct 9, 2014 at 15:58

Old English had on equal footing both the masculine widowa and the feminine widowe, which converge as “widow” in Early Modern English, and which is used for both genders by authors down until the 19th century. “Widower” first occurs in the 14th century as a way of disambiguating “widow”.


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, 2014 at 8:16
  • "Eligible"......
    – Oldcat
    Oct 10, 2014 at 0:22

Widow essentially translates to "empty house" in one of webster's and the bible's opinions. This needing definition in and of itself, I would posit that the reference is to the fact that women had no standing as far as owning anything, they could not vote, they could not buy or sell property, they could not convey property directly to another person, they were almost considered as "Chattel" themselves. So, without a whole lot of research, this would be speaking a couple of things to me, one would be that the Husband of the lost wife would be expected to handle those few matters that the wife would have had standing in, as well as his own, essentially thereby performing the duties of the widow or you could say that he was considered the widower to that estate.. just a thought but it makes sense.

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