Origin of the Term Layman

Today I found out the origin of the term layman.

The term layman has today come to mean “a person who does not belong to a particular profession or who is not expert in some field.”  It also has a somewhat less commonly known meaning of “a person who is not a member of the clergy”, which is its original definition. Layman derived from the two existing words “lay” (from the Old French “lai”, meaning “secular”) and “man”, hence the “non-cleric” meaning.

The term layman popped up around the 15th century and within about 100 years the term laywoman also became common.  In both cases, outside the non-cleric definition, they first particularly seemed to refer to people who were not specifically accredited in medicine or law, with the definition broadening from there to include any non-expert in a certain field.

The term “laity” has a similar origin as layman, deriving from the Middle English “laite”, which in turn derives from the French word of the same spelling. The French word “laite” comes from the Latin “laicus”, and finally from the Greek “laikos”, meaning “of the people” or “common” (“laos” meaning “people”).

The exact definition of laity varies slightly based on what religious sect one consults, but in general this word just means people who are not ordained, but belong to a certain religious group.  So, for example, in the Catholic Lumen Gentium, laity is defined as follows:

The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. These faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world.

Interestingly, the word ‘man’ was originally gender neutral, coming to eventually mean the same as the modern day word “person”, though originally was more accurately defined as “the thinker.” In addition to that, the word “men” used to just mean “to think” or “to have a cognitive mind” and was also considered to be completely gender neutral. It wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that the words man and men started to refer to a specific gender (males) and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that it was almost exclusively used to refer to males.

Bonus Facts:

  • Before “man” meant a male, the word “wer” or “wǣpmann” was commonly used to refer to “male human”.  This word almost completely died out around the 1300s, but survives somewhat in words like “werewolf”, which literally means “man wolf”.
  • Women at that time were referred to as “wif” or “wīfmann”, meaning “female human”.  The latter “wifmann”, eventually evolved into the word “woman” and retained its original meaning.  The word “wif” eventually evolved into “wife”, with its meaning obviously being changed slightly.
  • One interesting convention that was thought up in the early 1900s to deal with this issue of “man” coming to mean both male and female and also sometimes meaning males exclusively is, in literature, to do the following: when referring to all humans, “man” should be capitalized as in “Man”; when referring to “man” as in “male”, it is to be left lower case.  This convention was used in such literary works as “The Lord of the Rings” and was a key point in the prophecy concerning the Witch-king of Angmar: “no man can kill me”, meaning that according to the prophecy, a woman, Eowyn, could kill him because “man” in the prophecy was not capitalized.
  • The surname of “layman” (though not actually spelled like that) actually predated the “layman” term as we think of it today by about 600 years.  This name originally came through the Old English “leah”, meaning “a glade”, with “mann”, meaning more or less “a person responsible for something”.  Thus leahmann, layman, leyman, lyman, etc. would mean “a person who cares for a glade.”
  • In some religious sects, a lay priest once referred to someone who is a priest, but is not ordained in any specific order.  In Buddhism, however, a lay monk or lay priest was once considered to be someone who was a Buddhist monk, but did not live in a monastery, rather, lived among the people.
  • The term “layperson” didn’t come about until the 1970s, as an alternate explicitly gender neutral version of layman or laywoman.

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