Monday, May 02, 2005

What's wrong with men?

Reviewing Donald Lateiner's update of Macauley's Herodotus in the BMCR, David C. Noe has this to say:

"[T]here dwell in the skirts of lofty mountains men who are said to be all bald-headed from their birth, male and female equally..." (205).
The problem with this of course is that, as English usage has changed, "men" no longer regularly stands for "mankind," which is itself considered by many outmoded, archaic, and even offensive. That realization renders the appositive "male and female" even more ridiculous. It would have been better to replace "men" with people or mankind.

To which I say, 'nonsense.' Literally. "[T]here dwell in the skirts of lofty mountains mankind who are said to be all bald-headed from their birth, male and female equally...?"

If you have Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, check out 81 ff. under 'A digression on a word.' You'll find a man (who happens to be male) making good sense about language. It reads in part:

it 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.

Barzun rightly defends man not only for its history (with ample examples) but for its usefulness and facility in a number of situations. Those who choose to be offended, or are offended out of sheer ignorance, shouldn't dictate every text in our possession. Stop the inanity.

If you're interested, the original Greek follows:

Διεξελθόντι δὲ καὶ τῆς τρηχέης χῶρον πολλὸν οἰκέουσι ὑπωρείην ὀρέων ὑψηλῶν ἄνθρωποι λεγόμενοι εἶναι πάντες φαλακροὶ ἐκ γενετῆς γινόμενοι, καὶ ἔρσενες καὶ θήλεαι ὁμοίως, καὶ σιμοὶ καὶ γένεια ἔχοντες μεγάλα, φωνὴν δὲ ἰδίην ἱέντες, ἐσθῆτι δὲ χρεώμενοι Σκυθικῇ, ζώοντες δὲ ἀπὸ δενδρέων.

Men, both and male (men) and female (men) alike. The Greek ἄνθρωπος means precisely what English man means: human being. Man is the native English word, while human is really an adjective (humanus) derived from Latin homo (which is equivalent to man and ἄνθρωπος as a non-gendered term for the human animal). To reject man as sexist is as silly as to reject history or promote herstory.


caelestis said...

S.v. man, AHD4 apud, usage note:

Traditionally, many writers have used man and words derived from it to designate any or all of the human race regardless of sex. In fact, this is the oldest use of the word. In Old English the principal sense of man was “a human,” and the words wer and wyf (or wæpman and wifman) were used to refer to “a male human” and “a female human” respectively. But in Middle English man displaced wer as the term for “a male human,” while wyfman (which evolved into present-day woman) was retained for “a female human.” Despite this change, man continued to carry its original sense of “a human” as well, resulting in an asymmetrical arrangement that many criticize as sexist.•Nonetheless, a majority of the Usage Panel still accepts the generic use of man, although the women members have significantly less enthusiasm for this usage than the men do. [...] •Similar controversy surrounds the generic use of –man compounds to indicate occupational and social roles. [...]

If you can say female ma/en to mean politically correct female human being/-s without making yourself or your listeners wince, more power to you!

I suppose, to be equitably consistently pro-etymological, we can also undo the analogical reshaping in female? S.v. female, AHD4 apud

[Middle English, alteration (influenced by male, male) of femelle, from Old French, from Latin fēmella, diminutive of fēmina, woman.]

Anonymous said...

perhaps we would do well also to sanitize older texts such as donne's 'Meditation XVII' (

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
i know, i know--it's sufficiently clear from context that 'man' actually means 'human being', especially since he also refers to 'mankind' and makes it clear. but isn't donne outmoded? archaic? even offensive? how do we know there's no element of subversion in his masculinist insular discourse?

and anyway--i don't see why our reviewer thinks 'mankind' would get poor macaulay out of the woods. how is the 'kind' or species of men any less offensive than the word 'men' itself?

caelestis said...

The issue is rendering a modern translation. If one were to translate Donne into current English (with current meanings), not all of Donne's words might make it.

I suspect man (collective, without article) and mankind are still semantically broad enough that, harumphing aside, one would transparently interpret 'males and femelles together'.

I wonder, though, whether men (pl.) works today for man(kind) (collective)?

Indeed, for me, "[T]here dwell in the skirts of lofty mountains":

BAD: "men who are said to be ... male and female ..." = **"male and female men"?!

BAD: "mankind who are said to be ... male and female ..." = *"male and female mankind"?

BAD: "man who are said to be ... male and female ..." = *"male and female man"?

EH: "people who are said to be ... male and female ..." = "male and female people"

OK: "humans who are said to be ... male and female ..." = "male and female humans" (it's not just an adjective anymore)

In this instance, cultural factors have influenced grammar, regardless of one's views of the factors themselves. So the "update" doesn't work.

dennis said...

Appeals to usage are never conclusive. We might try to distinguish colloquial from literary usage (as the OED does when it says that by the 19th c. man/men in this sense was 'literary and proverbial rather than colloquial'.) But whose usage are we talking about? The usage of a feminist literary critic differs from that of Jacques Barzun. So too my father's usage and mine differ radically. Whose usage defines 'English' usage in a given time? The poets? The tradesmen? Whose English is the true English? The Englishman's or the Australian's?

And when you've determined whose English is correct, are the rest obliged to conform lest they be judged old-fashioned or offensive?

The fact that anyone, whether in print or conversation, continues to use a given term or construction is enough that it be considered current. It needn't be standard. That way lies precription, the bane of linguistics.

I'm not arguing for a return to old formations or usages. I have always used the term in this way and will not change because of political pressure. Even as child I read English literature of all periods and never misunderstood a writer's us of man/men. That's why the analogy to history/herstory is a valid one.

Only a fool would confuse the word in this sense with patriarchal chauvinism, and that's precisely what fuels the push to end this usage.