Mankind, Humankind, and Gender

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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.”

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120 thoughts on “Mankind, Humankind, and Gender”

  1. 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.

  2. 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).


  3. Mankind is traditional inclusive language.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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! 🙂

  7. 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:

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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. 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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.”

  15. We believe what we wish to believe and it’s difficult for those who disagree with us to change our beliefs.
    Having said this I expose myself to the risk of having my beliefs regarded as wishful. As all belief is wishful my response is ‘so what?’
    I regard radical forms of feminism–those which assert that there is a patriarchy which results from an artificially structured society–as results of a conspiracy theory. If you like conspiracy theories you’ll be likely to believe in them. I don’t.
    I see the structure of society as a result of impersonal evolution. Human beings are competitive, hierarchical, oppressive , predatory, etc. because they are predatory animals which have evolved in particular ways.No conspiracy is necessary to explain their behaviour. Human beings-mankind or ‘humankind” if you prefer, are not very pleasant animals.That is their nature.
    Author/authoress, etc. reflect preferences.I see no contradiction between respecting women as much as I respect men and choosing feminised nouns for certain roles which happen to be performed in some cases by women. Neither do i see the denial by word-choice of a woman’s being a woman as respectful. In fact I regard it as demeaning and apologetic.To my mind describing a female writer as an author is tantamount to pretending that to be female is to be inferior, which is both disrespectful and irrational. I avoid the use of ”humankind’ because it’s a concession to radical feminism, which seems to me to be no more than a semi-systematised and highly prejudiced and immoral demonisation of men.Hence the desire to get rid of or disguise the masculine element in mankind. It comes from a despicable and chosen hatred of men.
    Best regards,
    Norman Birt.

  16. Mankind refers to the whole of humanity.The component/phoneme man is indeed of Germanic origin and means person .
    I see no value in gender free language.Gender is an historically derived aspect of language which comes from an innate human tendency to personify objects.This is the origin of the custom of calling a ship she.It could be argued that a ship is protective and enclosing and therefore presents an analogy to motherhood, which is naturally a property unique to women.
    Gender is thus the linguistic parallel to sex.We attribute a sexual aspect to some inanimate objects because they remind us of classes of persons, but we don’t attribute sex to them precisely because they are not persons.
    This is why sex and gender are different and why they are not interchangeable.This is why it is inaccurate to say that persons and other animals have genders and why only words have gender.
    To suggest that persons have gender is to suggest that they are no more than inanimate objects, which is absurd.
    The term gender has been substituted for sex by persons who are smitten with ultra-feminist ideology and who hope to blur the distinction-the biological distinction- between the sexes, and to insinuate the lie that this distinction is artificial and negotiable.
    Nobody need feel offended by the use of gendered language, which is not intended to suggest the superiority of one sex over another.
    On the contrary, to refer to a woman writer as an authoress is more respectful than calling her an author because it acknowledges her femininity and the insight that is derived from it. Men and women have different types of insights and different perceptions because they evolved to have complementary relationships with each other.They are not interchangeable.
    The enforced or over-persuasive introduction of gender-free language is an unwarranted interference with the historical nature of language and is a misconceived and authoritarian effort to impose a view of social life which I regard as flawed.It is flawed because it conflates the differentiation of the sexes with the notion that one sex should dominate the other.

  17. ‘For free ‘ is poor English.Well used language is succinct and inflation is always an error.
    ‘ For free’ is inflated because it means no more than free.The extra word ‘for’ adds nothing. It is cumbersome and time wasting and ugly.
    Well used English is not verbose or pompous but concise.

  18. Hey, I would have taken your position a couple of months back. However, major Christian institutions such as the Mormons and my local pastor have switched to using the term humankind.

    While it may seem associated with the postmodernist leftist movement, I disagree with that characterization as I feel that “humankind” has become an identifying feature of Christendom.

    Anyways, God bless!

  19. Sofa
    Usage is constantly changing, as are personal views about such changes.. This post was written eleven years ago. A lot of linguistic change has gone down the pike since then. I have been writing posts for DWT since 2008. Many of my own views have changed during that time. Thanks for commenting. It caused me to reread many of the comments that were made when the post was published in 2010. I may write an update.

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