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I don't think man stands for male here, I think it stands for human—it is a humanhole. Does it have this name because its purpose is to provide access to the sewer for men?

Cobbled area with a circular manhole. The cover has a spiderweb like design.

migrated from ell.stackexchange.com May 17 '14 at 15:32

This question came from our site for speakers of other languages learning English.

  • There may be some history behind using man in the word manhole, but its usage now is gender neutral (like man-hours). – Gaʀʀʏ Apr 14 '14 at 15:52
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    I once heard a wise man say, Whenever you hear the word "man", you need to remember there are two kinds of "man": there's male man and female man. That's just a humorous reminder that the word "man" can be used to refer to adult males, persons in general, or the human race, as just about any good dictionary would confirm. – J.R. Apr 14 '14 at 18:53
  • Urban Dictionary has reänalysed the term into a more masculinely derived sense, but that is obviously a new interpretation on an existing word. – tchrist May 17 '14 at 17:20
  • @tchrist Is that not what we all do to all words at all times? – Tyler James Young Jul 4 '18 at 2:43
  • I came here after reading this article 🤦. – whatever Jul 18 at 16:26
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The origin of “manhole” is indeed a simple combination of “man” and “hole”. “Hole” is easy enough to understand, but with “man” there's some confusion since the word nowadays refers to a specific gender.

In the OED, we find:

man, n.

I. A human being (irrespective of [gender] or age).
Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to [men]. It is now freq. understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.
Source: “man, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2014. Web. 14 April 2014.

As is often the case with older senses of words, a sort of fossilization has occurred, whereby the older sense persists in certain compound words or phrases. In this particular instance, since the newer sense of that part of the word unneccessarily excludes approximately half of all people, some consider the word worth changing.

From MIT's Editorial Style Guide:

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language explains in a Usage Note that the word “man” has been used in the sense of the broader term “human” since Old English times. This, the Note goes on, results in “an asymmetric arrangement that many criticize as sexist.” Although levels of acceptance vary for each of the words in the left-hand column below (as well as for their feminine counterparts, of course), we offer some possible gender-neutral substitutions, should you choose to use them. Which we encourage.

[table omitted]
Source: Editorial Style Guide for The Office of Communications and Donor Relations, MIT

For “manhole” they offer the alternatives “utility hole” and “sewer hole” which, judging by your question, you may find more accurate to the fact that these service hatches are not actually gender-specific.

Opponents of changing how we refer to “manholes” claim that such alterations to the language are “political correctness run amok” and point to lack of prior usage as evidence that nobody will understand anybody inventing new terms for these passages or their coverings. Indeed, despite increases in usage for various alternatives (which may not even be referring to the same item), the most popular term by far is still “manhole”. The choice is yours! I personally have no problem understanding when someone says “manholes” and likewise no problem being clear and terse while using other words for these things.

  • '"hole through which a person may pass," 1793, from man (n.) + hole (n.)."' All that needs to be said. – IllidanS4 Sep 11 '17 at 15:56
  • @IllidanS4 You left your answer as a comment! Scroll down to find the “Add Another Answer” button. n.b.: You may need to add more research or commentary for the answer to be considered valuable by the community. Presumably, the person asking the question was already able to perform an internet search for the word's origin and had questions about it anyway. – Tyler James Young Sep 11 '17 at 16:03
  • Thanks for notifying, but it was deliberate. It would be a poor answer to only cite the contents of the page you linked first. – IllidanS4 Sep 11 '17 at 16:04
  • Also note that when I answered this question, it resided on ell.stackexchange.com, our site for speakers of other languages learning English. – Tyler James Young Sep 11 '17 at 16:10
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I'm not sure what OP means by "stands for" here - I'm pretty certain non-gender-specific use of the word man in English predates the very existence of the word human, so we can't really say it's a "short form".

Everything depends on context. If a product is described as man-made, or a commercial project is costed in man-years, this in no way excludes women from being involved. As it says here...

Some would argue that any use of the word 'man', e.g. manhole, is biased and should be avoided. Others are quite happy with female chairmen.

In short, this whole issue is nothing whatsoever to do with "meaning" as such. It just so happens it's an area of language usage that bothers some people for political/sociological reasons, not semantics.

It's not unknown for people to object to the word bitch, for example - simply because they've heard it applied to a woman in a derogatory sense more often than as a neutral reference to a female dog. Sometimes the very same people who argue for the man/woman distinction feel uncomfortable with the corresponding dog/bitch usage. I certainly never heard anyone suggest that a woman priest might wear a "bitch collar."

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    Well, considering that men are usually the ones that used this hole , through which they could enter a sewer, a boiler, a drain or any other similar structure, I would say that "man" in the word "manhole" stands for a male person.Words derive from real conditions. Read more: answers.com/topic/manhole#ixzz2ysJaXxRL – Vic Apr 14 '14 at 15:40
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    @Vic: I think that's slightly ridiculous. Sure, at the time when "manhole" first came into the lexicon, women would be unlikely to use them much. But to suggest that the usage itself was influenced by gender (as opposed to the social norms of the time) would be perverse. – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '14 at 15:51
  • Well, as there is plenty of controversy over female priests, I would bet some would not object to the bitch collar you you mentioned... – oerkelens Apr 14 '14 at 17:33
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Edited after comments and answers (to make this answer better and not misleading)

Agreed, Tyler put a good point. The word man has been used for a human with no gender specification. But...

When these terms were introduced for those particular work they refer to, those works were mainly done by men and never by women. Take cleaning through the hole (manhole), constructing the road (men at work), fighting with fire (firemen) and so on.

But then as the world became advanced, women started working everywhere. Let us not forget that our grandma's grandma never did any business nor does they were out in the society dealing with others. Primarily, they handled kids and their homes (Not sure about the rest of the world but this happened in India at least!). The revolution begun and then women started stepping out from their homes and today, you find them everywhere, equally working on the tasks like men.

About the terms, though lately but the change is happening. The linguists and grammarians now introducing the words those are epicene especially where things strictly don't belong to men. Mankind turned Humankind, Businessman turned Businessperson and Sportsmanship turned Sportspersonship. This is simply because why mankind, aren't women part of this?; Why businessman, can't a woman do business?; and, why sportsmanship, don't women have that spirit? The answers are right there and thus, the terms with epicene words are getting adapted worldwide.

In my opinion, those all work that required endurance, great physical strength and chances of putting life at risks took their term involving men and that's the reason I guess, manhole is the hole where the person (of course men, women entering that hole is unlikely even today). In coming years, if women start doing this work, I'm pretty sure, it'll be a humanhole as it has happened with other terms. While talking about the works that require great physical strength and endurance, I'm not talking about the medical condition of undergoing a labor (Thanks, Nico!) but the work that happens in the society.

If there are terms where the word man is applied and if these terms refer to the work, event or whatsoever that does not strictly adhere to the gender, in coming years, they'd also likely to get changed. FumbleFingers, the term manned spaceflight is already changed into human spaceflight. Again, read my opinion above!

All in all, the things those were done mainly, if not only, by men once, were introduced with the terms having the word man in it. Slowly but steadily, these terms are being replaced if those tasks or whatever is not just limited to men. Examples I already wrote.

Well, the article has good answer, the article where the picture is probably taken from. Even if the picture not taken from there, it's worth reading. I searched for the word history and found this what I feel is related:

manhole (n) - a hole, usually with a cover, through which a person may enter a sewer, drain, steam boiler, etc., especially one located in a city street.

What I think is the work that required strength, risk (of life) and endurance were (and are?) mainly done by men. And that goes with the definition of ...through which a person (generally a man) may enter a sewer, drain... However, over the period of time, in such hole a woman might have started working (though I'm not sure for that even today!).

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    I fundamentally disagree with this answer, most of which focusses on advancing the idea that we call these things manholes because men (as opposed to women) were/are more likely to use them. Vostok 6, for example, is classed as manned space flight regardless of the fact that there were no male humans on board. The actual word man has always been used in both gender-specific and gender-neutral contexts - it doesn't need any of this "revisionist justification". – FumbleFingers Apr 14 '14 at 20:30
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    Let me paraphrase one of your sentences: a pregnancy and giving birth is a work that requires strength and endurance, puts one's life at risk, and is mainly done by women! :) – Nico Apr 14 '14 at 21:09
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    @FumbleFingers I agree with you, but let's not forget from where Maulik V is writing from and the worldview I suspect he has as a result. – toandfro Apr 15 '14 at 0:11
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    @Maulik: I don't think you can reasonably say manned space flight is already now human space flight. It's true the gender-neutral version has been gaining currency, but it's still nowhere near as common as the original manned among Anglophones in general. And your entire argument that the original usage came about because male humans usually did certain things seems like post-hoc justification to me. In such contexts, the verb to man has never implied "maleness". – FumbleFingers Apr 15 '14 at 12:38
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    I sincerely hope we aren't going to start calling it a humanhole. Yikes! – snailcar Apr 15 '14 at 15:27
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I think there is some confusion when it comes from if you consider the modern usage of manholes. Today, an alternative name for them is maintenance chamber, so an incorrect assumption could be that the word has come from an abbreviation of maintenance to form man-hole.

Sewer workers or navvy's were primarily men in the 19th century England and a manhole would have been an access point where they could enter. The alternative is an inspection chamber where you cannot access with a man.

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The term "man" was once gender neutral. It started acquiring a male connotation in Old English. However, it can still refer to humans in general, depending on context.

As a general rule, "a man" or "the man" refers to a male adult human. Just "man" is likely to be gender neutral, meaning "human" or Homo sapiens. (To further illustrate the point, note that human is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root that produced man, and Homo is a Latin cognate of man.)

Therefore, considering manhole to be a gender-discriminatory term would be political correctness run amok.

  • Your parenthetical point is mistaken. It is incorrect to say that English human derives from English man. It does not, and you confusing Latin origins with Germanic ones. Rather, English human derives from French humain, cognate with Spanish humano, both deriving from the Latin adjective humanus, which in turn derives from the 3rd declension masculine noun homo, hominis. In contrast, English man comes out of a distant Germanic origin. You are going to have to go much further back if you hope to connect the common Germanic man to homo, and the evidence is disputed. – tchrist May 17 '14 at 16:55

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