A thread on Feministing about models’ weight got derailed multiple times, eventually leading to a discussion about connotations of terms used to refer to races and genders. At one point, the Law Fairy brought up the terms “male” and “female,” asking whether it’s patriarchal that “female” is “male” plus a prefix.
In fact, “female” derives from Latin “femella,” a diminutive of “femina” (woman), while “male” is “masculus” (itself a diminutive of “mas,” male) subjected to severe wear and tear, courtesy of the French language.
It’s possible that the final step of the shortening of “masculus,” that from “masle” to “male,” was conditioned by the similar word “female” – I’m not sure. This thing happens; the initial sounds of the numbers 4 and 5 in Proto-Indo-European are *p and *kw, but in Latin the number 4 got the same initial consonant as 5, and in Germanic the opposite happened (*p regularly became *f in Germanic, hence father/pater).
A more common linguistic issue among some feminists is woman/man, and the annoying and fortunately rare spelling womon/womyn. The general argument is that it’s bad that the word “woman” is a derivative of “man.”
In this case, it’s not a coincidence: woman is a derivative of man, indeed – it’s a contraction of wifman or wyfman. In Old English, “wyf”/”wif” meant woman, and now survives as “wife”; “man” was completely gender-neutral; and “wer,” as in “werewolf,” was strictly masculine. Over time, “man” acquired the dual epicene/masculine meaning it has now, displacing “wer,” and “wifman” contracted to “woman.”
There’s no real alternatives to “woman” if you want to use non-sexist language. The Old English words, mainly wyf and girl, exist in Modern English; and I don’t see English either borrowing Latin femina/masculus or Mandarin nü/nan.
If like me you’re a sucker for Germanic terms, you can epicenize “man” and then coin “wereman” as the gendered word. Then you need to come up with unified pronunciations for “wereman” and “weremen” (I suggest /”w@rm@n/ for the singular and /”wIrm@n/ or /”wErm@n/ for the plural). This takes care of expressions like “manned missions” and “enlisted men.”
Or you can do what most people are doing, and what I do when I speak to anyone but myself, which is use “person” as the epicene term and “man” as the strictly masculine one.