Mankind vs. Humankind

By Mark Nichol

The issue of gender-neutral language reemerged recently in the form of a publicized incident involving a college student who was (mildly) penalized for the use of the term mankind in a paper she wrote for a class.

Why was the score on her assignment lowered by one point out of fifty? The course’s professor had explicitly admonished students to use gender-neutral language such as humankind in place of the gender-specific mankind in their papers. The student (a woman), to test the instructor’s conviction about the point, deliberately used mankind in the assignment and discovered that the professor was serious.

So, what’s the big deal? Mankind has been used to refer collectively to humans since the Middle Ages. (Humankind, by the way, is younger but also dates back hundreds of years.) Why is the term widely considered sexist and exclusive? For the same reason that writers are encouraged to refer to police officers, not policemen, and chairs, not chairmen, and servers, not waiters or waitresses (though chairperson is considered cumbersome, and it is inoffensive to use waiters for either gender, thanks to the fact that waiter, though originally a designation for what was at the time of its coinage an exclusively male occupation, is not masculine in form).

Many people, including numerous women, decry this supposedly politically correct linguistic reformation, which is based on the belief that terms that encourage one to engage with a concept with the assumption that it pertains primarily to males perpetuates a perception that women are second-class citizens. The backlash is not without merit, as proposed gender-neutral language can be absurd (as with waitperson or waitron, gender-neutral substitutions for waiter or waitress, or in regard to gender-neutral pronouns that, absurdly, have been coined in an attempt to replace the gender-specific pronoun he, when effective solutions already exist). But extending mankind with two letters, or even replacing the collective man with humanity, seems a reasonable accommodation to bend language to reflect an effort to achieve gender equality.

Many authorities agree. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, recommends humankind—and on a related topic writes, “The writer’s point of view matters less than the reader’s” (with the implication that, in addition, the writer should not presuppose the reader’s preference, but should as a default use inclusive language). The Modern Language Association supports gender-neutral language, and The Chicago Manual of Style advises it, too.

Three of the pillars of society—education, politics, and business—champion gender-neutral language, with justifications that are distinct yet universally applicable: In education, inclusiveness encourages a perception of the human race that doesn’t conjure an image of a man or men by default; in politics, it discourages discrimination in laws and policy; and in business, it welcomes all potential customers and clients. Gender-neutral language also accommodates those who reject a binary gender system, and regardless of one’s ideology about gender identity, gender fluidity is a scientifically validated concept.

This issue is ultimately one of style, and, as always in regard to style, if one self-publishes, one does so with the freedom to choose how one conducts oneself in writing, with the attendant consequences of assuming that responsibility. But writers who elect to submit content to publishing companies or to contribute to an employer’s or client’s publications must accept that most publishers will heed Garner’s admonition stated above.

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5 Responses to “Mankind vs. Humankind”

  • Amazing Blair

    I’m glad the English language has been examined for gender bias, because any such study gives rise to a better understanding of unconscious tendencies we may have been holding onto. It’s a healthy exercise.

    That said, we may then choose which conventions and words to amend and which to keep. “Mankind” and “manhole cover”, for example, are fine with me. I don’t think such words demean anyone.

    For myself, I have dropped the use of words like “actress” and “waitress”, using “actor” and “waiter” (or even “server”) for both genders. “She’s a great actor” has begun to sound normal in my ear. Everyone has already done the same with “editrix”, using instead “editor” universally. We wouldn’t even think of using the female form nowadays!

  • Anne-Marie Shaffer

    I’m offended by the absurdity of de-gendering language. When will I get justice?

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Anne-Marie, I strongly agree with you:
    “I’m offended by the absurdity of degendering language. When will I get justice?”
    The suffix or prefix “man” is a very commonly used and understood (for a long, long time) brief version of “human”. “Mankind”, “manhole”, “chairman”, “crewman”, and “Men at Work” all make sense. I am used to seeing women who work in crews who work on buildings, highways, runways, waterways, etc. “Human beings are at work here,” so be careful.

    These are all officially gender-neutral, in alphabetical order: airman, airmanship, anchorman, baseman, brinksmanship, boatman, boatmanship, coxswain, craftsman, craftsmanship, defenseman, draftsman, grantsmanship, greensmanship, goalie, guardsman, helmsman, hitman, HUMAN, junkman, landlubber, lineman, linkman, Marine, marksman, man-to-man defense, netman, nurse, parson, pitman, Secretary, seaman, seamanship, shipman, showmanship, soldier, trackman, watchman, waterman, good workmanship, Workmen’s Compensation, X-man, X-men, and yardman.

    In case you have never heard about these, good grantsmanship means the ability to write good grant applications to the government and to corporations, and good greensmanship means the ability to putt well on the greens of golf courses. There are many women who are great at “puttering around”, and this is something that gives many male golfers great headaches!
    Good airmanship, boatmanship, and seamanship are the abilities to direct and operate aircraft and watercraft well, especially during bad weather and/or during crowded conditions.

    Good craftsmanship and good workmanship are the abilities to produce high-quality products that meet their specifications, and nobody cares what gender you are – or none at all.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I strongly agree with Anne-Marie Shaffer and would go a couple steps farther. It is more than absurd, it is Orwellian. Language is one of the most democratic and organic of human things, and consciously, purposely attempting to manipulate it in service of a political agenda is, without exaggeration, right out of the totalitarian playbook. Gender-neutral and organically unnatural. I would call out the “professor” and ask exactly why he thinks he get authority to issue ukases regarding the English and, e.g., declare a perfectly good word, like mankind, somehow illegitimate to use. It displays that “ze” is a pompous ass with a power complex of the exactly brown-shirted variety I’m sure zir comrades and ze, without the slimmest inkling of irony, purport to abhor.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have found it really amusing to read of “personhole” to replace “manhole”. Weren’t most of us born via that route?

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