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"Frauenzimmer" must be the strangest German word I learned so far, and when our teacher taught it to us I didn't expect to find it in writing soon. But I encountered it already in the third sentence of Thomas Mann's Lotte in Weimar:

"Mit der ordinären Post von Gotha trafen an diesem Tage, morgens kurz nach 8 Uhr, drei Frauenzimmer vor dem renommierten Hause am Markte ein, denen auf den ersten Blick – und auch auf den zweiten noch – nichts Sonderliches anzumerken gewesen war."

Two questions:

  • Is "Frauenzimmer" a common word in everyday German, or for instance only in literature?
  • What's the origin of the word?
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3 Answers 3

It's a dated expression and no longer common in German, no. As to the etymology, let me quote Wiktionary:

In seiner mittelhochdeutschen Form vrouwenzimmer bedeutete das Wort ursprünglich die Gemächer (Zimmer) einer Fürstin (vrouwe, Frau); später wurde dann das Gefolge der Fürstin als Frauenzimmer bezeichnet (vgl. Kabinett). Danach wurde Frauenzimmer zur Bezeichnung einer einzelnen Frau (niedrigen Standes) und häufig abwertend gebraucht. Das Wort ist seit dem 15. Jahrhundert belegt, heutige Bedeutung seit dem 19. Jahrhundert.

I have nothing to add.

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To me, it (still) has a sexist appeal. –  Grantwalzer Jun 14 at 18:39
    
That's if you'd use it today. You can't apply today's thinking to an historic expression. –  Ingmar Jun 14 at 18:59
    
@Carlster before the 17th century it didn't had a sexist meaning at all, since 17th c. it might have a sexist undertone but it's mostly a depreciative or sometimes humoristic synonym for a woman or girl. –  try-catch-finally Jun 14 at 19:15
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Worin soll der sexistische Gehalt denn liegen? Die Abwertung rührt doch offensichtlich daher, dass Hausmädchen ein Beruf für Frauen niederen Standes waren. Es ist also eine Diskriminierung der Klasse, nicht des Geschlechts. Persönliche Befindlichkeiten ändern daran auch nichts. –  user unknown Jun 16 at 1:44
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@try-catch-finally "In Minna von Barnhelm" Tellheim uses Frauenzimmer in quite a condescending fashion. Today he'd say "Weiber, ey!" Granted: it's from the 18th century - still I think has had sexist connotations for quite some time. –  Einer Jun 20 at 12:55

The term Frauenzimmer is known as early as from the 15. Century when it was used for the women's rooms where maidens of aristocrats lived. It was shortly later when Frauenzimmer was also collectively used for these women, still in the meaning of servants to the nobilities.

This also implied that the women were better situated than ordinary or peasant people. So it is of little surprise that the term Frauenzimmer was widely used in the 18. Century for women having a higher social rank, being from wealthy bourgeois origin, and being educated.

There never was a pejorative meaning to Frauenzimmer.

Example:

Man betrachte ein Frauenzimmer als Liebende, als Braut, als Frau, Hausfrau und Mutter, immer steht sie isoliert, immer ist sie allein, und will allein sein.Goethe: Die Wahlverwandtschaften

Today the term is not used any more but you will come across it quite often when reading classic German literature.

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The "word" isn't strange. But maybe the underlying idea is.

The literal translation is "women's room."

It denoted a room in the most isolated part of the house, typically the basement or attic, where one or more women were kept, to "protect" them from contact with men outside the family.

This is an outdated, medieval expression/concept that exists today only in "developing" countries, as well as in Europe before World War I.

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