What’s wrong with you, man?

Recently I was asked to chair a weekly meeting. There was some sensitivity around the term ‘chairman’ and points made that due to a gender sensitive environment, the group would prefer to call me chairperson. At the time, I agreed, to appease any potential offence.

Chair 'man' is a function not a gender
Man or woman, the role of chair is a function not a gender

Then I thought about it. Although I am female I do not ascribe gender to the role and see it as a function rather than a gender identifier.

If we have chairperson, let’s also go for barperson and postperson etc. Person itself has the male denoted son, which must be problematic for those attempting to rid the language of words with man.

Gender cleansing

There are 1564 words that contain the letters m, a, n in sequence. Let’s assign them all for reconstituting so that we rid the English language completely of this gender.

Let’s just look at a few of them.

Management – will change to personagement, manhandle to  personhandle and emancipate, epersoncipate

And what about our route word human – we go huperson – and woman, we go woperson – these are only if we can accept that person is a gender neutral word.

What about the expletives? Oh, man, Man oh man, Oh boy. What will we do with these?

And don’t get me started on men. We have menstruation and menopause – two woperson’s issues; also mental, mention, mentor and mendacity. There are more words with men than with man – 2631 according to Wordchecker. So now we’ve got 4 195 words in the English language that could arguably be labelled gender specific.

Human is clumsy

I submit that when the act of chairing a meeting came about in the 17th century, the lexicographers of the day thought it quite efficient to make the word ‘chairman’ rather than ‘chairhuman’ and so it was quite nicely formed, well-termed enough to make it to the dictionary.

According to Vocabulary.com, the word chairman comes from a sense of “occupying a chair of authority, defined as a noun: the officer who leads the meetings of an organisation; and a verb: act or preside as chair, as of an academic department in a university.”

“Human,” says Vocabulary.com, “was first recorded in the mid-13th century, and owes its existence to the Middle French humain, of or belonging to man. That word, in turn, comes from the Latin humanus, thought to be a hybrid relative of homo, meaning man, and humus, meaning earth.

Thus, a human, unlike birds, planes, or even divine spirits up above, is a man firmly rooted to the earth.

My sense of history is not that it was setting out to ascribe gender, but rather to create a language we could work with. My point is that I’ll take ‘chairman’ any day but can we please leave MAN in our language and find a more appropriate application for gender equality? 


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Edited by Andrea Abbott

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


11 Responses

  1. Touché, I believe I was the objector! I guess you have never been in a church congregation where the priest calls: “Brethren let’s join hands!” to a congregation consisting primarily of women. Gender cleansing has far-reaching ramifications. For instance, not so many years ago natural disasters like hurricaines, volcanic eruptions, droughts and floods were all given women’s names. This was because they were unpredictable, irrational, dangerous, out of control….like women, of course, all the way back to Eve in the Garden of Eden. As a result of pressure from feminist groups, now at least natural disasters are named after men and women. I suppose it is a question of how far to go. Leave no stone unturned is my approach!

    1. Hi Melody

      I have just completed a basic Spanish course and I was not that surprised to learn that the plural for ‘they’ always takes the male form whether or not there are more women in the group being referred. So perhaps you can forgive your minister for gathering ‘brethren’ in prayer. He could be of Spanish lineage. (Tongue-in-cheek, of course). My point is language (and not only English) always has a ‘preference’ for the male gender.

  2. This is a decidedly contentious issue. My thoughts: let’s do no deliberate harm, so being sensitive to language is necessary and it costs very little. Possibly if we become more aware of the words we choose to speak, we could even become a little more conscious of the values we hold and how we might then respond to those around us?

  3. The day that a policeman does not object to being called a policewoman because “It’s meant to imply both genders” is the day I accept this argument. Until then, I’ll call fishermen fishers and waitresses waitrons or wait staff, and actors of both genders actors, and chairs of meetings chairs. Menstruation and menopause are derived from “menses” via the Latin for month, and have noting to do with men, either in grammar or in real life.

  4. Ridiculous. ‘Gender cleansing’ is not about removing the letters m-a-n from every word in the English language. It IS about restoring women to their rightful place in society. The number of words where this is necessary is limited.

    ‘Chairman’ was designated for a man. If a woman is in the post, call her ‘chairwoman.’ Fortunately, many words are not gender-specific: a doctor or a nurse can be either, or non-gender.

    Mankind is very simply changed to humankind. The word ‘human’ is NOT gender-specific, in either Old French or Latin. Some of the sources you quote are very dodgy.

    It’s not rocket science. To say that it is too complicated to change the gendered terms in a language is a cop-out.

  5. Well put Iza. I agree. I have always said, in the context of the Chair, that we should call the occupier of that position Chairperchild. Which would, of course, be ludicrous. This matter of PC is being driven to nonsensical extremes. Therein lies some of the problem. Extremists and extremism. The extreme Liberal Left – – largely intollerant and unbending, driving an agenda simply, it appears, to make the headlines. Will you next examine how many words have the letters S O N in sequence so that we can have a comparison, look beyond the horizon. Is this actually an Americanisation of “horison”? Did Shakespeare ever write a Sonnet? Can we have a sonar, sing a sonata, or does this all sound sonorous?

  6. Nobody is objecting to sequences of letters spelling out masculine words. We are objecting to exclusion. Not something a man perhaps knows everything about, but still gets to feel women are simply driving some agenda. Has language ever excluded you, Peter?

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