Jan 312003

Jim Ryan stands up for “he” as the universal antecedent. Cinderella learnedly notes how vastly the status of women in Iran has been improved by the fact that Persian possesses a unisex substitute. Jacques Barzun, in the magisterial From Dawn to Decadence, has the absolutely last word on the subject:

[I]t is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: “And God created Man, male and female.” Plainly, in 1611, and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; “Man inhabits all the climactic zones.” Logicians have said “Man is mortal,” and philosophers have boasted of “Man’s unconquerable mind.” The poet Webster writes: “And man does flourish but his time.” In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root of man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for “I think.” In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious — spokesman, chairman, and the like — man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically “wife-human being.” The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable. In a like manner, the proper name Carman is made up of car, which meant male, and man, which has its usual human being application…

In English, words denoting human beings of various ages and occupations have changed sex over time or lost it altogether. Thus at first girl referred to small children of either sex, likewise maid, which meant simply “grown-up,” and the ending -ster, as in spinster and webster, designated women. It is no longer so in gangster and roadster. Implications have shifted too. In Latin, homo was the human being and vir the male, so that virtue meant courage in battle; in English it long stood for chastity in women. The message of this mixed-up past is that it is best to let alone what one understands quite well and not insist on a one-sided interpretation of a word in common use.

…To repeat at frequent intervals “man and woman” and follow it with the compulsory “his and her” is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires. It is unfortunate that English no longer has a special term for the job like the French on. But on is only the slimmed-down form of hom(me) — man again.

…The truth is that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue — an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.

Any questions?

(Update: Dean Esmay comments. At length.)

  3 Responses to “A Digression on a Word”

  1. Oh, yes, "Man," I’m almost there. I once tried to say use in a lecture but balked. I can’t quite yet get up the courage to use it in public, but I’ll only need a couple more months. "The human race," the only substitute, is awful.

  2. Fascinating quotation from Barzun. Interestingly "man" means "I" in Persian. Does this make Iranians egomaniacs?

  3. Oh man, this is so right on.

    Indeed, I’ve long been meaning to write an essay entitled The Misogynist Nature of "Gender Neutral" English.

    Because the notion that women are somehow ego-bruised by use of the masculine and the neuter together is arguably quite condescending.

    It helps me that I’ve got a wife who agrees, and that some of my favorite female writers also agree.

    Yet I still cringe and have an instinctive urge to try to avoid using "man" and "he" as neuter, but you’ve inspired me to take a step further in that direction.

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