Okay, I admit that sounds a bit overblown and vaguely philosophical — calling to mind subjective idealism, phenomenalism, the intellectual debates of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and so on. But while that’s an interesting subject in its own right (feel free to stop by Wikipedia on your way out), I had something else in mind. As usual, it all starts with words. So perhaps I might restate the title of this post as something more like: “world” and the essential place of “man” in its etymology.
If language really does define our perceptual limits (I won’t digress into a discussion of the theories of Sapir/Whorf), then it makes sense that we might find “man” in the “world” — human beings can’t really imagine a world without them in it, after all. I know I can’t! ;)
The word world derives from Old English weorold (interestingly, as you’ll soon appreciate, a feminine noun — I wonder whether this is the same grammatical process responsible for distinctions like the French le mort “a dead man” versus la morte “death, as an abstract concept”).  Skeat points out in his Etymological Dictionary that the word is clearly a composite form . Cognate forms among the other Germanic languages include Old Norse (and Modern Icelandic) veröld, Old High German weralt (cf. Modern German Welt), Old Low Franconian uuerolt, and though not attested, I feel confident theorizing Gothic *waíralds .
Of what individual elements, then, might weorold be composed? Spenser thought it was war + old ; that is, the domain of an ever ongoing strife. So he says in the Faerie Queene — “But when the world woxe old, it woxe warre old / (Whereof it hight)” . A clever guess, and one that seems apt enough given mankind’s perennial struggles, but wrong. Rather, the word comprises the two joined elements of man + age = “the age of man” = therefore, the world. Thus, OE wer “man” (cf. Modern English werewolf = “man-wolf”, and cf. Latin vir “man”) + eald “old, ancient, aged” (cf. eald-dóm “age”); and likewise, ON verr + öld; OHG wer + alt; OLF uuer + olt — all from Primitive Germanic *weraz + *alda.
Interesting, no? And it turns out that world is hardly the only word dependent on man. Consider Latin sæculum “lifetime, age of man” (from one of the oldest known Indo-European roots, meaning “to tie, bind”). As it developed, the Latin word retained both the senses of time, cf. Modern French siècle “century”; and world, cf. Modern English secular, meaning “worldly, mundane”. Speaking of mundane, which itself derives from the Latin word mundus “universe, world” (cf. French monde, Spanish mundo, Italian mondo), it’s tempting to look for the man in mundus as well, but that’s a misstep. The original meaning of mundus is “order”, as in a world or universe arranged neatly according to a divine plan. (The Greek κόσμος carries the same original sense and survives into Modern English in the words Cosmos, cosmic, and as a combining form in words such as cosmology.)
It is equally tempting to look for man in human, but the etymology of that word is a little different. Even so, we still can find a connection to the world in it. Turning back to the familiar Latin source, the adjective hūmānus “pertaining to man”, from the noun homo “man”, we find something surprising: homo derives from humus “the ground, the earth, the soil” from which, according to the Christian tradition, the first Man came . The word humus has survived into Modern English as well, referring to fertile, organic topsoil suitable for growing things. Where did the Romans get this idea? From the Hebrew Bible, one would surmise. There, the first Man took his name, Adam (Hebrew אדם), from the substance out of which God made him, the earth (Hebrew אֲדָמָה /adama/). Genesis 2:7  may therefore be one of the oldest statements of etymology we know!
How much of this connection between man and the earth is due to our own anthropocentric view of the universe? All of it, really; Man was, and is, the central actor on the stage of the world (to paraphrase Shakespeare). After all, without Man, who would there be to speak the word world — or anything else, for that matter? I suppose our glossopoeic nature gives us license to name, even to define, the world with our own distinctly human nomenclature. If we one day should find that chimpanzees, dolphins, or bees have genuine languages of their own, then who knows? We may have to rethink our whole Weltanschauung. :)
 Does it go without saying that there are several different dialectal variations of the word, as of most Old English words? It should. “Old English” usually corresponds to the West Saxon dialect, simply because of the extent of the surviving lexis, though Modern English, in fact, is closer to the Mercian dialect. At any rate, other attested forms include weoruld, weorld, woruld, worold, etc.
 Skeat, Walter William. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd ed. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1893, p. 718.
 Built from the same components as the other cognate forms; in this case, the attested Gothic waír “man” + alds “age, life” (see Wright, Joseph. A Primer of the Gothic Language. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1892, pp. 238, 212, for these words. Putting them together, however right or wrong, was me.) There is also an attested word with a similar composite meaning in Gothic: manaséþs “mankind, multitude, world” (lit. “man-seed”).
 Book IV, Canto VIII, ll. 276–7.
 Valpy, F.E.J. An Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language. London: Baldwin, Longman, and Whittaker, 1828, p. 188. Note that other mythologies explain the origin of Man differently; for example, in the Old Norse tradition, the first Man and Woman were Ask and Embla, the Ash and Elm tree, respectively.
 In the King James translation, “And the Lord God formed man [Adam] of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” emphasis added. (The original Hebrew, וייצר יהוה אלהים את האדם עפר מן האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה)