Mankind, Humankind, and Gender

By Maeve Maddox

A reader takes me to task for not having used “gender neutral language” in a recent post:

In your definition of eschatology you use the word mankind. You run a writing website, please use gender neutral language please, it isn’t that difficult.

My views on gendered language are perhaps too loose to meet the more extreme requirements of political correctness. For example, I don’t see anything wrong with using the word mankind in the sense of “all human beings living on the earth.” As I understand the word, it comes from an Old English construct in which man means “person.”

I do not countenance words like poetess and authoress, which I believe convey a sense of condescension.

I condemn the expression “woman doctor” used to indicate the gender of the doctor rather than the doctor’s medical specialty.

On the other hand, words like chairperson strike me as faintly absurd. And efforts to translate the Bible into “gender neutral language” seem rather misdirected, considering the patriarchal viewpoint of the content.

I suppose that I was supposed to substitute humankind for mankind. I don’t see the point. The word human derives from the Latin word for “man”: homo, There was an Old English cognate, guma (pl. guman), that also meant “man.” It survives in our word bridegroom, “the bride’s man.”

Excessive concern over “gender neutral language” frequently results in unidiomatic English and/or unnecessary transformations of useful and innocuous words.

This is a writing site, but it is also a blog. Readers have to expect that some opinion will inform the posts.

I feel an obligation to verify my discussions of standard usage by consulting the OED, the Chicago Manual of Style, and other recognized authorities. In the matter of what does and doesn’t count as “gender neutral language,” however, I feel no compulsion to buy into the world of “Chairperson Greenspan” and “Every man and woman for him or herself.” I don’t happen to see every word with a syllable spelled m-a-n as an affront to womankind. (Should we still be using the word woman?)

In my opinion, humankind is no more “gender neutral” than mankind. Both mean exactly the same thing, and both derive from the word “man.”

115 Responses to “Mankind, Humankind, and Gender”

  • Chris Price

    Saying “humankind” and “mankind” mean the same thing ignores the difference in connotation these two have in a historical context. The former is respectful and tries to dismantle patriarchy while the latter is disrespectful. On purpose. Because you know better but choose the one that sounds better to you based on how you grew up. Like when some one tries to say “we’ll we’ve always defined marrage as being between a man and a woman,” read “we’ve alway been bigotted, so we should continue.”

  • Lori

    A “woman doctor” sounds like a doctor who specializes in female ailments. To me gender neutrality is all in the mind. If enough people are dissatisfied with *man words being used in a general sense, they will invent a gender-neutral pronoun and start using it. This is how language works. As it stands, males are actually at a disadvantage: think of it – one can explicitly refer to the female gender and exclude the male but one can not do it the other way around. There is no way to use the words *man/*men to refer exclusively to males without a trace of possible ambiguity.

  • Y.

    I’m a little late to comment but I can’t help myself. :3
    I don’t like words like mankind, chairman, airman, or whatever-man. I simply don’t like them. They sound bad to me, make me feel excluded, and I’m not exaggerating. But I still use them.
    “Airman” still stands for male or female, no matter how uneasy it makes me feel. “Airwoman” only stands for female. And why would I need to specify? I wouldn’t in most cases. Male or female, they’re still an airman, they still do the same job, and I’m not about to butcher the English language by replacing all “men” for “people.”
    I do, however, use the singular “they.” I’m sure a lot of men out there would not be please if the standard pronoun for an unknown person were “she,” would they? I don’t want to feel more excluded than necessary.
    On a brighter note, I think we should all be grateful for the possibility of being political correct rather than fight about it. My mother language is Portuguese, in which even “they” is gender specific (eles/elas), so I don’t have much choice. At least our people (pessoas) are always women. 🙂

  • Lee

    Actually “human” is also derived from the Latin “humus” which means “of the earth” or “earthly being”, which accords more gender neutrality.

    But the thing of it is, language evolves. Obviously, or we wouldn’t necessarily have etymology just to keep track of that evolution. Some of the evolution is natural, some artificial; why shouldn’t we opt for words that reflect the broader aims of an egalitarian society that we [should] want to live in? That is, one can promote human equality and human rights through language. The generic “they”/”them” in place of the sexist “he” and the “politically correct” “he/she” is, I feel, one way we can start to shift focus from a masculist or sex binary conception to one that encompasses all potential gender conceptions.

  • Rob

    After reading through some of the other responses, when we say man we are referring to human beings men on the other hand only refers to a collective of male human beings. To Nelida, it’s like in Castilian hombres is man/mankind but varones is men or a collective of male humans, and in Castilian there are three genders masculine feminine and neuter (of course true neuter is only very rarely used except in the case of lo or ello but those have specified uses) the “masculine” plural is in fact a neuter plural because it covers everybody where as it can also refer to a group of males, but this is only incidental. Basically the neuter and masculine in latin collapsed into the same form. But this wasn’t a contrived thing it just happened. Basically to all the people wanting to change the language or that think that language is sexist learn about the developement of languages like Old English and Latin into English and the modern Romance languages including Castilian (wrongly called spanish) and see how they’re really not sexist. this is my only quarel with the feminists. they should have learned about the change from old to modern english. Also manicure is not sexist because the root man- comes from latin manus meaning hand. the word man as in a man is a solitary word it doesn’t form roots for other words. manicure, manage, manipulate, etc. man in all these words comes from a latin root meaning hand.

  • Rob

    I defend the words man and mankind, pure English/Anglo-Saxon words, because they ARE gender neutral. And I don’t defend them because I’m a man (see the difference MAN and A MAN) [and trust me I grew around mostly woman so I know my place], but as a linguist thou startst messing with language, thou messest with me. That’s when I get mad, and if ye’ll notice most of these made-up (not invented, that’s Latin, I speak English thank ’ee very much), most of these made-up words are Latin words. Human cometh from humanus (of man) in Latin. Mankind/Man is the same thing as humanity. But as I see it, these PCdiots seem to want to destroy English; they want to replace every English word with a Latin one. Other languages don’t have a problem at all with this. Doctor was traditionally a man’s/men’s (notice that A again) job, but now that women are doctors, we have doctresses (yes a real word, my spell checker told me so). I’m in favor of a word like doctress because it accurate stateth that this man that is a doctor is a woman. (Man is old English for person as well as a man if I haven’t made it clear)
    So I believe that these PCdiots need to take an English linguistics class and learn of word origins. Man is different from a man because Man is the collective, it’s a neuter single count noun, whereas a man isn’t and can be pluralized and is a masculine word.

    Yeah, so maybe before we try to change anything let’s consult a linguist or all of them, hmmm?
    And P.S. to all the woman out there that are ACTRESSES, why would ye call yourselves actors? I thought that ye all (notice that it’s y’all in fast speech) were woman but if ye all are actors then I ye’re men? Am I right? or are ye woman thereby making you each an ACTRESS. Thou seest that I can’t see how it would possibly be demeaning to call oneself an actress if one is a woman. It’s just accurate and when woman call themselves actors they’re saying that they are men (again notice A MAN & MEN vs. MAN)

  • Damian Stafford

    Mankind is correct and indeed signifies neither male nor female but all human beings. “Humankind” is an ignorant solecism – a word invented by politically correct idiots who seem not to appreciate language and its provenance.

  • NorseWinter

    Oh! And on the topic of clever humor you should upgrade your humor to a more intelligent (and refreshing) on. “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” by William Satire (alias Douglas R. Hofstadter) is HILARIOUS!

    And at the same time, so complex, it blew my mind and expanded my horizons. So instead of getting a bunch of apes to gather and mindlessly agree with no substance, whilst insulting scholars or feminists who do research, why not do the research yourself?

    Years ago, MASSES were comfortable with the security that “everyone” believed the world was flat. Regardless of which comedian you quote, the world isn’t flat. Stick to facts.

    Here’s the link to the masterpiece that explains your question:

  • NorseWinter

    That’s because you’re the type of person who probably doesn’t know the difference between someone saying “You’re as smart as a tack.” You’d probably take that as a compliment. “It’s just a word, right? Surely he meant ‘SHARP..’ I use that tactic many a time to cleverly insult people who just don’t get it. Those who aren’t intelligent enough to see the meaning, get laughed at. Those who actually get the hidden intent are clever themselves!

    Anyway, why does the bible say “womenkind” if “mankind” means humankind, eh?

    Hhmmm… I guess “womenk” and “ind” are not words… So I suppose womenkind are a ton more mysterious than mankind… more words you know.. PLUS womenkind CONTAINS the word “mankind” yet includes the more invisible gender … so it’s not only mysterious.. it’s more functional and versatile!

    Thank you Daniel, were it not for the logic you’ve shared, I’d have no discovered this incredible revelation. Truly, you have earned my compliment… You’re as smart as tack, lad! 🙂

  • John

    To Pissed off,
    You piss me off more than the debate itself.
    You are an ignorant “english teacher” lacking the human ability to reason as stated by Zaroff in the short story “The Most Dangerous Game.” If you are an english teacher you should know what story I am talking about. The story was written by Richard Connell. “Was written” I relized I used passive language.
    From, a member of mankind.

  • John

    I just used mankind in an essay for school and Microsoft Word underlined it in green telling me to replace it with “humankind of humanity.” I just kept it as is.

  • Jeffrey Wozniak

    Mankind is traditional inclusive language.

    We do not undo old unjustices to women by doing new injustices to language.

  • Antonio

    Sing the song

    #Dear Lord and Father of Mankind…forgive our foolish ways#

    Rest my case

  • Sparrow

    What is this lady/woman doctor stuff? A doctor is a doctor. There is no “man” in the word. If you need to ask for a female doctor, ask for one. It is not used in the same way as “policeman”, “fireman”, “mailman”, etc.

    That being said, I refer to the above as police officers, fire fighters and postal carriers. I see the older terms as outdated?

    To Alan, for this comment:
    “I would have hoped that in the 21st cetury most people no longer see gender eqaulity as a political issue.”

    Are you serious? Women still make less than men for the same work. Being a stay at home mom is not recognized as a “real job” when in fact if women were paid for it, they would make well over 100k/year. (I don’t have the reference handy but if you want it I would be more than happy to dig it up for you!) And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Gender equality has far from been achieved, and while it is a political issue, it is reflected through our language. (So I certainly don’t agree with Baruch – but I balked at your response…!).

    A final comment on the folks who note that (for example) “So many odd and often awkward sentences are created by those trying to be gender neutral.”

    Why do you think it becomes awkward? Perhaps because the standard is patriarchal??! “He/she” is standard because it has been that way forever. Yes, doing something different is going to be awkward, at first. When I write (academically), I use “she/he”. Yes it is a statement, but it has also become second nature for me. And I don’t care if the reader thinks it’s awkward – that’s her/his own bias. 😛

    ALL of this being said – really great discussion here (for the most part).


  • Otherworld Apple

    Alan, your profound depth and understanding behind why the word is a bit of a nuisance, is both touching and refreshing. You’ve thoroughly explained every qualm and discomfort (especially when touching on the parts of ‘culture’ and ‘patriarchy’ history) that I wouldn’t even bother to begin explaining to someone who’s already set their mind to dismiss anything other than what *they* mean. I bless your patience and tolerance… for you have much of it. My hats off to you.

  • Otherworld Apple

    “Mankind is tradition.”

    Yes. So is sexism. Racism. Slavery. Mindless brutality…. need we go on?

    I don’t mind being clumped up with the gender of man… but why is it such a big deal for men to be clumped up with women?

    If that’s the case, I’ll only visualize men when they refer to themselves as the default race of “mankind.” Hah!

    “The fall of man.” Indeed. They fall easily, don’t they? -.-

  • Dieter Hornemann

    “Mankind” is traditional.

  • gabrielle T

    I agree with ‘pissed off’ and many others who claim ‘mankind’ embraces all. It does NOT, just because its an ancient usage – so what? ‘Hee, hee, hee’, what a joke.

    And as for deconstructing the world ‘human’ (that contains man, as an argument in defense of ‘humankind’)’ – well, that’s a bit ridiculous. Take ‘man’ out of ‘many’ for instance – give me a break!

  • christabel pankhurst

    I make no apology for asking the receptionist in our local health clinic:

    “Do you have a lady doctor on today?” If it carried a jail sentence I would still ask it. Why? Because if I am attending a doctor and want a lady doctor, that is what I will ask for. For other occasions I happily attend a male doctor.

    When I attend the cancer clinic in the hospital the nurse will ask me if I am comfortable having a male doctor attend me.

    I am a woman. I am married to a man. We were both born to a father and a mother albeit when times were more civilized. I have three children one is a young woman who is very ‘lady like’ and indeed very “Mary like”. I have two sons, young men who hold all females in high regard and treat them with the respect due to them.

    Baruch Atta is correct. I write for the readers who appreciate the term “mankind”. Indeed we recognise each other and it is important that we do. I never, really realised how important that was until I read this blog today.

    Thanks, the different views are very interesting.

  • Shannon

    yea, let’s keep sexism in our language so it can continue to live and breed in our minds.

  • Cecily

    I don’t understand why some people think “humankind” solves the perceived problem. It still contains the string “man”, and its etymological routes are also from homo/man. And what about “woMAN”?

    I don’t like man/men used on their own to refer to people of both genders, but in words that have long had a more inclusive meaning, such as “mankind” it doesn’t bother me. (I’m a woman, in case you’re unfamiliar with the name Cecily.)

    One surprising thing is that although such old-established words as “headmaster” and “chairman” are rarely used nowadays, I’ve never seen anyone object to “webmaster”, yet that was coined after people started discussing gender-neutral language.

  • Baruch Atta

    “I’m an English teacher….” says pissed off.

    And I am glad that I am not in her class. For instance “…most of you as complete idiots…” Does she view all the boys in her class this way? Seems so. Heaven help the third grade boys. Save the Males!

    “…does ‘mankind’ include your little 6 year old neighbor…”
    Answer: yes.

    “…the other abuses of womankind…” have nothing to do with the use of the word “mankind”.

  • pissed off!

    I really appreciate the people who are so politely trying to suggest that ‘mankind’ somehow really does include everyone, but the fact is it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what you think is acceptable. Humankind is and should be the only option. I really can’t believe this is a debate. Seriously, it’s really difficult not to think of most of you as complete idiots. And, guess what I’m a feminist and proud of it. Feminism: the radical notion that women are people! And, guess what again… I’m an English teacher. You grammarians make me wish I never stepped foot in that ridiculous English dept.- the arrogance is staggering. Reason it out and read your grammar books to tell you the answer, but what’s the truth, really, does ‘mankind’ include your little 6 year old neighbor, Sally, who’s just learning to read? NO! Maybe we should ask the brain surgeons what they think and debate this some more, or how about just using ‘humankind’ from now on! Or, maybe your personal preference should come before Sally’s and maybe the other abuses of womankind around the globe are really not our concern either.

  • Alan

    Hi Ken,

    “Evil lurks in the heart of man.” and “Evil lurks in the heart of humankind.”

    I would write “Evil lurks the heart of humanity,” or how about “Evil lurks in the heart of all.” The reader knows that the ‘all’ is refering to us human beings, without having to spell it out thst fact.

    I find both these sentence work for me.

    “Evil lurks in the heart of humanity”
    “Evil lurks in the heart of all”

    they both vibrate with rhythm and cadence.

  • Nemo

    I loved this article and the discussion after it. I’m just completely and utterly ecstatic that there wasn’t any cursing. It renews my faith in…people when I find out people can discuss sensitive issues without degrading into violent speech.

    And just because I wanted to say something about the article: It is my opinion that the writer defines the word, the word does not define the writer.

    Go on, crochet my brilliance on a pillow somewhere.

    I liked the tangents too, even the ones that went over my head.

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