Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Change of Generic Man to Gender-Specific Man

I wrote about this topic previously but added more content here.

Representative Emanuel Cleaver II opened the 117th Congress session with a controversial end to his prayer: “amen and a woman.” Cleaver meant it as a pun to illustrate the current high number of female members of Congress. His intent seems good, though his timing may seem sacrilegious and inappropriate to some.

Others on social media aired their grievances about Cleaver’s pun. For example, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro tweeted:

“Amen” is a Biblical Hebrew word: אמן. It is a word simply meaning “may it be so.” It has nothing to do with the word “man” or “woman” because it is FROM HEBREW. This is some of the dumbest s*** I have ever seen in my life.

This incident illustrates the tension surrounding words and gender politics. Even if intent may be honorable on both sides of an issue, a war of words may still ensue over the definition narrowing and/or broadening of gendered terms.

What do you think about Cleaver's pun on amen?

The Faux Pas

I experienced similar tension during a college class over the Star Trek introduction. In the first few months of my marriage to a Trekkie, my husband and I watched the original Star Trek where I heard “To boldly go where no man has gone before” with every introduction.

During my Modern American Usage class the next semester, the professor asked for examples of sexist or inclusive language.

“Where no man has gone before,” I said.

Suddenly two or three people in the class objected: “No, it’s ‘where no one has gone before.’”

I cowered, but I knew I was right!

Well, I hadn’t watched Star Trek: Next Generation yet where the creators had changed the introduction to inclusive language. However, my example with theirs showed the evolution of inclusive language from the 60s to the 80s.

Has anyone ever called you out for sexist language? Have you ever called someone out for sexist language? How did the exchange go?

Generic Man

Over thousands of years, our language has narrowed generic human nouns and pronouns into gender-specific nouns and pronouns (or vice versa). Old English used wer to indicate an adult male, but speakers replaced wer with man. The meaning of man meant male or female until AD 1000. But man retained the sense of people for longer. The last original Star Trek introduction (6/23/1969) and Neil Armstrong’s declaration on the moon “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind” (7/20/1969) illustrate this sense of people until 1969.

Other terms that use man for the sense people include mankindmanslaughtermanhandle, etc. Mankind has declined in usage over the past 200 years. Humankind seems to have replaced mankind in some instances since 1960. Using Google Books Ngrammankind usage decreased in 1978 as humankind usage increased. Mankind has a slight dip — mostly in the 90s — but it returns to the same percentage in 2019. Interestingly enough, mankind increased in the new Millennium. Humankind doesn’t seem to have replaced mankind as of yet, and the term may never do so.

Screenshot of Ngram

Can you think of other terms with "man" that still retain the sense of people?

The Desire for Gender Neutral Terms Returns

Ironically, as gender-specific terms narrowed, some have a desire for gender-neutral terms again. This desire stems from various legal, diversity, and transgender movements. First, gender-neutral language often simplifies legal language. Second, some desire gender-neutral terms to reflect the gender spectrum. For these dual purposes, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has proposed to change gender-specific terms to gender-neutral terms in the Congress ethic rules. This proposal has again sparked controversy among politicians.

The issue of gender-neutral versus gender-specific terms encounters controversy because of potential discrimination based on sex, religion, or political persuasion.

How do you feel about the changes in the House Ethic Rules?

Look at a Person’s Intentions

The changes in meaning and terms have been an underlying issue in the culture wars for several decades. This tension will most likely continue. But as it continues, we need to look at people’s intentions behind their words. Like Cleaver and Shapiro, most of us have honorable intentions. Thus, we can draw on our honorable intentions, instead of our desires to be right or not offended, to reach compromises or to kindly disagree. Albeit not everyone will do this, but you and I can choose to do this.

How can we approach each other with a "heart at peace" when addressing conflicts over language usage?

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