Mankind vs. Humankind

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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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15 thoughts on “Mankind vs. Humankind”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. Dale A. Wood – While you may see gender neutrality and equality reflected in society, why is it wrong for that same neutrality and equality to be reflected in the language? Language was created for people, not people for language. We have a duty to correct language born from the minds of men who viewed women as second class peoples. Language communicates ideas and values. When our ideas and values change, so should language. It serves us. We don’t have to be children who bare the burdens of our Fathers’ sin by caring their immoral ideas and unjust values into perpetuity with their language.

    venqax – What is Orwellian – totalitarian, is for language never to change to reflect the majority of society but remain the same because of tradition. Language that is democratic is also just and changes to defend the actual values and ideas of the people. Language is as organic as a painting or sculpture, it does not exist outside the intentions and will of the creator; therefore, language was consciously and purposely manipulated from its inception. It was was not a coincidence that there was gender bias is in the English language and acted out in the culture. It was conscious. It was purposeful. I can tell you where the professor gets his authority, not from a king or tradition, just like the rise of democratic principles in the Age of the Enlightenment, his authority is his own understanding of what he wants his language to be, reflect, and speak, not what some age old tradition or king tells him.

    Anne-Marie Shaffer – Synonyms for JUSTICE: equity, impartiality, objectivity, neutrality. Gender neutral words are JUSTICE. Do not let the unjust offend you and be offended by your own justice.

  6. Does this not mean that the word “woman” needs replacing? “Woman” would need to become “woperson”. No, that’s wrong. We can’t use the word “son” as that is gender-specific. Should we use “woperchild”?

  7. Any attempt to enforce a politically based style code re the use of language is an attack upon freedom of expression and is therefore unacceptable.
    I shall use words as I wish.I have no intention of offending anyone but if anyone in offended by my decision to use mankind instead of ‘humankind’ that isn’t my fault.
    I have nothing but contempt for the intolerance of those who wish to enforce so-called ‘gender -neutral’ usages.

  8. “(…)gender fluidity is a scientifically validated concept”

    It is not. In fact, gender is defined by the naturally deterministic human traits related to sexual dimorphism. So, to allegate that some ‘science’ is involved in the purelly ideological beliefs such as “gender fluidity’, are nonsense.

  9. This is so ridiculous. Everybody knows the term mankind refers to both men and men with brooms as well, oops that’s supposed to say men with wounds, Darn!- “…with wombs” as well. I’m sure those who consider it more important to cry wolf and nurture their unhealthy neurosis also chose to block out whatever information they were trying to attain from the comunicae they tripped over a red flag to their own personal issues on. Then decided to blame someone else for their malfunction, and furthermore waste the time of many other people, (including mine right now) all the while reenforcing the serious mental health issues they should be devoting their efforts on finding help for. No participation trophies for you people! If you refuse to help yourself, maybe try helping Society instead of actively attempting to hinder it. If you still can’t do that and can’t find it in you to fix you, then just do nothing next time, your malevolent acts serve only to harm yourself and others. Do I sound rude to you? There’s another red flag for you. I have only objectively identified and defined the facts of the situation gained through observational analysis, with the intent of helping you and preventing future harm to others. Any offense taken when not intended is self-inflicted. Have a nice day.

  10. Man and mankind
    Traditionally, we use man to refer to all human beings, male and female, usually in contrast with other animals. However, many people consider this to be sexist, so it is better to use a different expression, such as human beings:
    Human beings first emerged in Africa, some two million years ago. (preferred to Man first emerged …)
    Mankind can also refer to all human beings, male and female, usually in the sense of social or conscious beings. Although people generally consider it less sexist than man, it is usually better to use a different expression, such as human beings (with a plural verb) or humankind (with a singular verb):
    Human beings have always dreamt of happiness and of a perfect world. or Humankind has always dreamt of happiness … (preferred to Mankind has always dreamt …)


  11. Mankind means both men and women.
    It would be silly to write or say womankind.
    You can use humankind, but why?
    Stop being sensitive.
    George Vreeland Hill

  12. Humankind should be used to include both genders. Since we are all basically women, even womankind would be better than mankind. Mankind means just men.

  13. Mark,
    I was pondering; or perhaps even musing about the words humanity and mankind myself and the differences they may convey. In the quest to relieve myself of this quandary – I took to the internet. I am of the opinion that the direction the English language and the greater English speaking America is headed is a disgrace. Custom makes decent satirical remarks. Ken lays down some facts that Phylicia disputes while making her best attempt at being normal. Its comical. Norman would get my vote for office. Some of this is just fact based wrong like D and Leah hides behind her victim card by calling the comments sexist. If we are gender fluid or neutral or whatever you jellyfish decide to call it this week, wouldn’t that negate the very concept of sexist comments? I’m pointing a finger, Leah. It’s not sexist if your just annoying, moronic, uneducated, unlawful, or just particularly sphincter resemblant. And that wouldn’t matter if you had one adjacent another, if it was sideways, black, yellow, wore a badge, did crack, sold crack, or had a third one out back. So… goodbye Felicia…I mean Phylicia… Because these burdens are not bourne of our fathers contempt, but our mothers.
    The next time someone wants to make “something” matter or speak up against “x”; do the noble thing and stfu or die.
    And Mark if you believe all this rhetoric why would you use the word she in your first sentence what’s the difference if it was a she or he that wrote that paper if you really believe it, or defend it, then be prepared to make sense at least. And professor God….you are wrong. mankind is “human beings considered collectively; the human race.” …. Making it a point in the very definition that there is no distinction. That’s what it means. And hence the probable cause from our departure from the Queen’s English. After all, who were we to follow suit. Albeit, it should have been referred to as the Royal English which would make that status biased. Yeah, just kill yourselves.

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