were·wolf also wer·wolf (wârwlf′, wîr-, wûr-)
A person believed to have been transformed into a wolf or to be capable of assuming the form of a wolf.
[Middle English, from Old English werewulf : wer, man; see wī-ro- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots + wulf, wolf; see WOLF.]
Word History: The meaning wolf in werewolf is current English; the were is not. Werewulf, "werewolf," occurs only once in Old English, about the year 1000, in the laws of King Canute: "lest the madly ravenous werewolf too savagely tear or devour too much from a godly flock." The wer- or were- in wer(e)wulf means "man"; it is related to Latin vir with the same meaning, the source of virile and virility. Both the Germanic and the Latin words derive from Indo-European *wīro-, "man." Wer- also appears, though much disguised, in the word world. World is first recorded (written wiaralde) in Old English in a charter dated 832; the form worold occurs in Beowulf. The Old English forms come from Germanic *wer-ald-, "were-eld" or "man-age." The transfer of meaning from the age of humans to the place where they live has a parallel in the Latin word saeculum, "age, generation, lifetime," later "world."
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.