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My immediate thought is that the term is generic, and yet I read recently a verbal brickbat described as ad feminam. Was that just a po-mo back-formation, or is there some merit to the distinction?

[Mind you, it's likely I saw it in the same office where a proofer once changed an unrelated text I wrote to read ombudsperson, so ....]

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Ad feminam is sort of witty, but it also derives from a basic misunderstanding of the Latin (see my answer below). This in turn probably originates from people who think "homosexual" refers to "man-love" and not "same-love". In fact "homo" and "ad hominem", in Latin, have nothing whatsoever to do with gender. –  thesunneversets Feb 11 '11 at 21:31

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I've certainly only used it or seen it used as a generic, gender-neutral term. (And only in the phrase ad hominem.)

As Kosmonaut mentions, part of it is that it's in a different language, so any gender mismatch* is not going to be apparent to people unless they know some Latin. But there's also the fact that classically, in many languages the word for "man" had two meanings: (1) a masculine person, and (2) a member of mankind; a person (of unspecified gender). Modernly, the second meaning is sometimes seen as prejudiced against women, and thus people come up with all sorts of newfangled constructs to avoid that usage. Thus you get (hopefully**) deliberate plays on words like "ad feminam", which doesn't actually mean much of anything, but is understandable if taken in parallel with ad hominem.

* As JSBangs points out, homo is not actually the Latin word for a specifically masculine person — that would be vir — so there actually is no gender mismatch with using ad hominem when the subject of the attack is female.

** If the usage was not deliberately playful, but meant sincerely and literally, I would find it to be sad evidence of the decline of society.

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Haha; +1 for your last comment. Let's hope things never come to that. –  Kosmonaut Feb 11 '11 at 17:10
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Additionally, though homo is grammatically masculine, the word generally refers to someone of either gender and is probably best translated "person" in modern English. The word that specifically refers to a man is vir, and the other in femina. –  JSBձոգչ Feb 11 '11 at 20:37

Ad hominem, in Latin, literally means to the person; it doesn't make any reference to the sex of the person.

Ad feminam is found in the Corpus of Contemporary American; it seems a "back-formation", as it first appears in the period between 1920-1929.

1990-2010
1900-1940
1810-1850

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Look at that spike in the aftermath of ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment: that's wild! –  fortunate1 Feb 11 '11 at 23:20

I think if we were Latin speakers, then there would be merit to the distinction. But we're not, and hominem doesn't mean anything to the average English speaker on its own; it only means something as part of the phrase ad hominem, which is used to describe the insertion of a personal attack into a debate. The "man" meaning from Latin is not particularly transparent to English speakers, and so it is not a problem. (Think of similar things like "fraternal twins", which is happily applied even to girl twins.)

Phrases like ombudsman do have a transparent structure, at least in the -man suffix, which many English speakers directly link with the noun man. So, this type of word would be much more likely to become "neutralized" in the name of political correctness.

Whoever used ad feminam was almost certainly using word-play intentionally, and I think it is safe to say that this word is not likely to establish itself in the standard lexicon.

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I first read you as having said, "...much more likely to become naturalized in the name of political correctness" -which may be equally apt. Or equally unsettling, since I think it's a special sort of abomination to create an Anglo-Swedish mash-up, in this case, out of a loan word that has such a specific meaning. Just because this word has a low-hanging man doesn't mean it should be gelded. –  fortunate1 Feb 11 '11 at 19:05
    
@fortunate1: We have an Anglo-Japanese mashup in the word "tsunamis" (Japanese tsunami with English plural suffix), a Romance-Arabic mashup in the word "mummify" (Arabic mummy + Romance suffix -ify), and so on. Even the word "equally" that you use is part Latinate and part Germanic. Do you consider all such combinations to be abominations, or only those involving Swedish? –  Kosmonaut Feb 11 '11 at 20:09
    
I know there are a lot of mashups in English, k-naut, and I realise my stance on ombudsman is inconsistent as a result. I'll have to prepare a better answer to defend my flightiness when a comparable issue comes up; the only similar instance I can think of now (and it's not even a perfect match) is "it's déjà vu all over again." [EDIT: I don't know the emoticon to represent nausea, sorry!] –  fortunate1 Feb 11 '11 at 20:36

No one seems to have pointed out, so far, that the Latin words for male man and female woman are not "homo" and "femina" but vir and femina.

Homo does not refer to "man" as in "male", but man as in "human". That's (part of the reason) why male things are "masculine", and not "hominine"!

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As Churchill said, "the masculine embraces the feminine." It's Latin, so I think only the most, as you say, po-mo pedant would object to ad hominem. In any case, ad hominem describes the argument, not the target. The fact that the target is a woman is irrelevant, IMHO.

To take it one step further - the term "ad hominem" has a meaning in English that it doesn't in Latin, since it's part of a classic list of fallacies. The term "Ad feminam", whatever other merits it may possess, is simply not included in that list. So when you use "ad feminam", you're simply losing accuracy. Not to mention that the listener probably doesn't speak Latin, and may not have any idea what it's supposed to mean.

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very elegant second para, chris; thanks. [interestingly, one of my favourite reference books, the "Dictionary of Foreign Terms," gives the first definition of ad h. as "appealing to the emotions rather than the intellect," which meaning seems to have vanished utterly.] –  fortunate1 Feb 11 '11 at 17:06

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