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Monday, August 14, 2006

Brethren and Sistren and cistern

I have been utterly convinced for some time that there was a feminine equivalent of the word "brethren", that being a stylized and archaic plural form/reference of brother and brothers. I knew it was "sistren" but for the life of me I cannot recall where I got that knowledge and I discovered why people doubted my knowledge of this word; although I knew why they thought I was referring to the word "cistern" no one should doubt that the word "sistren" is not something that I made up, but a real word. I looked up the answers and discovered why.
What is the feminine equivalent of brethren?

There is a word sistren, though it has a somewhat different history from its male parallel. Both words were used in Middle English (12th to 15th centuries) simply as the plural forms of brother and sister. From about 1600, brothers began to take over from brethren (Shakespeare used both), except in referring to fellow members of a religious community, or a society or profession. Even this use is now rather archaic (though groups such as the Plymouth Brethren keep it in use). Sistren, meanwhile, had fallen completely out of use by the middle of the 16th century, but has been revived (and used almost exclusively) by feminist writers.
The reason why it was so difficult for me to look up the word in standard references and normal resources is that the word fell completely out of common use by the middle of the 1500s! The word has been gone for nearly 500 years now! My diction hasn't been normal for half a millenium. Rest assured that I did not acquire the word from a feninist text or any work by a feminist writer. That leaves the point of introduction a mystery.

A cistern is a "receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater." I knew that.

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