Is there a non-gendered term for manning a station, as in manning the desk? The only ideas I can come up with are "stationed at" the desk or other clunky things. Finding the right gerund would make my day.

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    Well, I think "manning" is pretty gender-neutral these days. Honestly, I have heard female WNBA coaches exhorting their female players to "make sure you guard your man." (And they were, of course, playing other women, not men.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 14:30
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    "Manning" is not gender neutral, because its presumption is that the person doing the job in question will be male. The use of "man" in female sports does not make it gender-neutral but rather shows how ingrained gender specific language has become.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:16
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    Even the Mekon said "Man the guns! Destroy Dare's ship!", when the operators concerned weren't even humans. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 10:55
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    @LittleEva I'm not talking about etymology here, but about the perception of the word in modern English. There's nothing over-sensitive about wanting to find a more neutral-sounding alternative.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:04
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    @Mari-Lou - I can't speak for the OP, but I feel neither offended nor discriminated against by the terms “man” or “manning.” Neither is it my intention to piss people off, but it would seem that the whole issue of seeking gender neutral language, and especially the neutering of masculine gendered terms, cuts some folks the wrong way. Maybe it’s the close proximity of the words “neuter” + “masculine,” rather than the search for a less gendered language that accounts for the resistance. ;-)
    – user98990
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:21

13 Answers 13


"staffing" is pretty close to what you are asking.

Is anyone staffing the desk?

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    It is used, but most online dictionaries do not include the 'staff' = 'man' (v trans) sense. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:29
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    "Staffing" is more done by one who's assigning people desk duty than by the one at the desk.
    – cHao
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 18:49
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    Merriam-Webster and Collins have to staff as transitive. I guess things have changed since Edwin's comment.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 8:26
  • @Stuart Yes, and there are quite a few hits for "staffing the desk" in the manning rather than providing staff for sense. Good update. Commented May 17, 2023 at 10:57

"tend"; "tend to"; "tending"; “tending to”; "attend"; "attending to" ... the station/desk/store/shop/bar, etc.

tend verb:

1. Care for or look after; give one’s attention to: [with object] “Viola tended plants on the roof”; [no object] “for two or three months he tended to business”

1.1. US Direct or manage; work in. “I’ve been tending bar at the airport lounge”

1.2. archaic Wait on as an attendant or servant.

Oxford Dictionaries

tend v.tr.: 1. To have the care of; watch over; look after: tend a child. 2. To manage the activities and transactions of; run: tend bar; tend a store in the owner's absence.

Synonyms: tend (2), attend, mind, minister, watch: These verbs mean to have the care or supervision of something: tended her plants; attends the sick; minded the neighbor's children; ministered to flood victims; watched the house while the owners were away.

The Free Dictionary

tend to v.: To apply one's attention to something; attend to something: I must tend to my chores before I can go outside.

The Free Dictionary

tend (v.1) "to incline, to move in a certain direction," early 14c., from Old French tendre "stretch out, hold forth, hand over, offer" (11c.), from Latin tendere "to stretch, extend, make tense; aim, direct; direct oneself, hold a course" (see tenet).

tend (v.2) "attend to," c. 1200, a shortening of Middle English atenden (see attend).


attend v.intr.

1. To be present, as at a scheduled event. 2. To take care; give attention: We'll attend to that problem later. 3. To apply or direct oneself; take action: attended to their business. 4. To pay attention: attended disinterestedly to the debate. 5. To remain ready to serve; wait.

The Free Dictionary

attend (v.) c. 1300, "to direct one's mind or energies," from Old French atendre (12c., Modern French attendre) "to expect, wait for, pay attention," and directly from Latin attendere "give heed to," literally "to stretch toward," from ad- "to" (see ad-) + tendere "stretch" (see tenet). The notion is of "stretching" one's mind toward something. Sense of "take care of, wait upon" is from early 14c. Meaning "to pay attention" is early 15c.; that of "to be in attendance" is mid-15c. Related: Attended; attending.


man (v.) Old English mannian "to furnish (a fort, ship, etc.) with a company of men," from man (n.). Meaning "to take up a designated position on a ship" is first recorded 1690s. Meaning "behave like a man, act with courage" is from c. 1400. To man (something) out is from 1660s. Related: Manned; manning.


The search for a non-gendered terminology is a worthy quest. Where suitable, gender neutral terms are available but under-employed, using them enhances their currency and furthers that quest. Like any other human endeavor, neutering gendered terms can be taken to extremes and become rather counter-productive (manhole=personhole; man-eater=person-eater), but that is not the case here.


A note on the neutrality of "manning":

"Manning" is (or at least has been) gender-neutral. Only in recent history has "man" taken on a gendered connotation. Before, "wer" was a prefix that meant male (as used in "werewolf"), and "wif" meant female (which eventually led to the word "woman" from "wifman"). The use of "man" as gender-neutral appears today in the words "mankind," "human," and of course "manning." Therefore, "manning" is a suitable gender-neutral term.

However, if you still want an alternative, "tending" or even "working" would work. For example, "manning the help desk" vs. "tending the help desk" (though it sounds strange) or "manning the register" vs. "working the register."

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    Agree in general with your historical remarks. However, "human" is not etymologically related to "man," it's an unrelated word that comes from Latin. Also, I'm not sure why you put it in a spoiler tag. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/human
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 2:14
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    "Recently" being "in modern English, as opposed to a different language called Anglo-Saxon or Old English that started mutating into Middle English nearly 1000 years ago" ;-) But I do agree with the basic premise that the noun is far more strongly gendered than the verb, and that we shouldn't let this mislead us into thinking that the verb also is strongly gendered. It doesn't literally mean "occupied by a male man", it just follows typical English-language negligence that some want to better. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 11:44
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    What is the source of this block quote? Block quotes are reserved for direct quotations and citations for direct quotations are required.
    – user98990
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 21:32
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    -1 because I think most of the English-speakers I interact with from day to day would read "manning" as a gendered term. Providing an argument that "manning" didn't used to be or shouldn't be heard as gendered is interesting, but I doubt it will help the OP achieve their goals.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 5:36
  • All right. Would it be okay to remove that block quote, since it doesn't help answer OP's question?
    – Blahgory
    Commented Jun 27, 2015 at 21:01

"Covering" is often used by my wife (a registered nurse) in exactly the way of "manning the help desk" in that it denotes responsibility without implying specific activity.

One issue this question raises is that of being more precise in thinking about who is doing what. "Manning the help desk" for instance often refers to a rotating role where a group of people share a responsibility in turn. This is somewhat different than what would have been meant by "manning the USS Enterprise". In that context "covering", "working", "attending" may all have an appropriate use.


Consider re-working the sentence to include the phrase on duty. For example:

Is there anyone on duty at the IT help desk today?


"Working", "covering", and "sitting" sometimes work.


If they're taking care of things at X, you could say they're 'handling X today' or 'will be handling X'.

Although it specifically refers tot he act of holding or moving something with your hands, it can also mean keeping an activity under control, or doing a task that needs to be done.


Depending on the exact nature of the duty: "guarding", "watching", "minding", "running", but they each suggest something more specific and active than is required by "manning", which just means to turn up and be there.

"Occupying" is close to a synonym, but slightly suggests that you aren't merely present, you're preventing someone else from occupying the same desk.

"Tending" is most commonly used for bars, not desks, but you might make it work.

"Staffing" can mean "to do the duty", or "to ensure someone's on it, not necessarily yourself", or "to provide staff". So it has an appropriate meaning but is potentially more general. As far as I know it's nevertheless the "standard" alternative in this context.


How about:

Please watch the desk.
Cover the desk.
Keep an eye on the desk.
Can you work reception?
Will you handle the phones?
Grab those calls, would ya?
Can you cover reception, monitor the phones, and make sure everything runs smoothly?
etc etc

There are thousands of different things you could say to avoid the term "man," depending upon the context you're facing. That being said, if "manning" is the perfect and precise word, you should use "manning."


Instead of a "manned mission" or "manning a station" please consider a "crewed mission" or "crewing a station". The Navy has an interesting expression if you want to tell some to "man their station and get to work." You tell them to "Turn to, Shipmate." I suppose you could to tell someone to "work your station."


What are they doing at the desk? Maybe you can describe their job (e.g. "answering the phone" or whatever) rather than that they're simply occupying the desk.

If their job is mostly just to be there, maybe say "holding the fort".

Fig. to take care of a place while someone who is usually there is gone, such as a store or one's home. (From western movies.) I'm going next door to visit Mrs. Jones. You stay here and hold the fort. You should open the store at eight o'clock and hold the fort until I get there at ten.

Maybe this is just an American idiom, I don't know.

If it's the fact that it's a desk that's important, there's an idiom about being a "desk jockey" you could work into the sentence (instead of implying something about being a "desk man").


In UK military parlance, for completely different reasons, UAVs are 'Uninhabited air vehicles' rather than 'unmanned air vehicles'. Though saying someone 'inhabits' a desk would be rather strange.

'unmanned' traditionally meant 'cowardly' (see the phrase unmanned by fear) rather than the opposite of manned.

  • How delightfully ironic.
    – Preston
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:14
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    "'unmanned' means 'cowardly' rather than the opposite of manned." - In 30 years I've never come across this usage by anyone who is not named 'George R R Martin'.
    – Nye
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 10:42
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    Is there any evidence that unmanned means cowardly? It appears to be sheer invention. UAVs are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - just ask google. Usage comparisons Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 13:02
  • @GreenAsJade I used to work for BAE SYSTEMS designing UAV control algorithms. The RAF doesn't put its documents on the public internet, so you're not likely to find them in Google. The 'unmanned' usage is certainly more popular, but there's plenty of hits for "uninhabited combat aerial vehicle" etc. Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 10:10
  • Just because BAE calls a thing by a name doesn't make it language. The usage that I can find of uninhabited aeriel vehicle is negligible. for example and ... Commented Jun 26, 2015 at 12:22

I was always taught that the 'man' in 'manning a desk' had its origins in 'managing', not 'man/men/male', which meant it was not a sexist term and was an unnecessary overcorrection to change it. My workplace recently requested that we 'person a desk', which grated with me because it sounds awful and doesn't fit with the phrase's origins (at least as I was taught them). But perhaps the definition I was given in my youth was well-meaning but incorrect.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 3:50
  • 1
    Perhaps sadly, opinion rather than lineage is the deciding factor over whether a given term is pejorative. And your company's opinion seems clear on this one. Though I agree, 'person a desk' sounds gauche enough to be considered a violation of Orwell's Sixth. Commented May 17, 2023 at 11:01

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