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In contemporary English, the terms "male" and "female" seem to be almost as commonly applied to people as "man" and "woman". For example, I see people posting questions on certain StackExchange sites starting with "I am a 23 year old male" or similar.

As a non-native (but fluent) speaker of English, this usage still bothers me for reasons I will explain below. I would like to know if this is just because of a bias coming from my native language, or if native English speakers also perceive these terms in a similar way to me.

Both in my mother tongue and other languages I speak, the direct translation of "male" and "female" are either applied to animals only, or are used in technical or scientific contexts. "Male elephant" is natural. "Human male" also does occur in a scientific text, after all humans are mammals (a kind of animal, from a biological perspective). The police may use "male suspect", as this is again a kind of technical jargon (and it goes the extra mile to be strictly objective). Then it's easy to see how this can get shortened into just "male", e.g. "60 year old male", in a police communication.

But hearing these words used in everyday speech always leaves me with a bad taste. In a way, it feels like talking about people as if they were animals when using "male"/"female" instead of the more common man/boy/lad/whatever. It feels ugly and almost rude.

Thus my question is not about the literal meaning of these terms, but their connotations, and how (or whether) these connotations have changed during the past few decades.

Do native speakers sometimes perceive these terms the same way I do? Or am I just influenced by the bias from my native language?

Finally, is my perception correct that the everyday use of these terms has significantly increasing during the last decade? Are there differences in the nuances of these terms between countries (e.g. UK vs US)?

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  • No, I think in English "male" and "female" may be used for people, and there is no reason for a "bad taste".
    – GEdgar
    Aug 31, 2018 at 10:21
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    Not a full answer, but it might be worth checking out the distinction sometimes made between gender and sex. People tell me that male/female are biological sex terms whereas man/woman are gender constructs.
    – Pam
    Aug 31, 2018 at 11:45
  • @Pam When you say "people tell me", it suggests that distinction was not obvious to you, or that you learned it recently. I am interested in how these terms are perceived by the majority of native speakers in different countries and different points in time.
    – Kali
    Aug 31, 2018 at 11:52
  • @Kali I'm afraid I don't have an authentic online citation for that right now, I'm relating the knowledge of colleagues. It wasn't a distinction I'd considered until recently, but seems to be accepted in my part of UK. Certainly "Male" or "Female" is the choice on any forms you have to fill in - no negative connotations there, it just is.
    – Pam
    Aug 31, 2018 at 12:35
  • @Kali In my opinion your perception is correct. Referring to someone as a man or a woman indicates that the speaker sees them as a man or woman equal to him or herself. There are obviously cases where person is more appropriate than man or woman, but the principle is the same. Unfortunately, spoken English has changed over the years, and the more “objectifying” terms male and female have become more acceptable. I recently heard one of our office managers (older, native English speaker) referring to the “male washroom” and the “female washroom”, which seems to show where we now are. Aug 31, 2018 at 15:05

3 Answers 3

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I don't have a reference to cite, but in my experience I think people use "male" and "female" when their intent is to describe someone (or themselves) in more of a biological sense, or to seem technical rather than personal, while "man" and "woman" are used to refer to them culturally.

This is related to your experience of using the words to refer to animals rather than people.

For instance, when police describe a suspect they'll say "white male" rather than "white man", this expresses a sense of technical detachment.

It has become idiomatic to use this language in specialized contexts, such as personal ads, where the abbreviations SWM and SWF stand for Single White Male and Single White Female.

In addition, in many contexts, the words "man" and "woman" might suggest the connotation that the person is manly or very feminine. As in "man's man". The technical terms are not loaded with these nuances.

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In my opinion, your instincts are good. There is something clinical or scientific about "male" and "female". The terms are not just for living beings; they are also used in electrical construction to describe interlocking parts.

The terms "man" and "woman" mean specifically adult or nearly-adult persons. "Boy" and "girl" refer to children.

Back when I was doing online dating, I skipped right over the ads "seeking a female" because the sexual intention was just too obvious. "I would like to meet a woman" was more respectful, because it was seeking a full human connection rather than being focused on sex.

My bias: I am an older woman from a southern state of the USA. Good manners are extremely important in my culture.

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  • It's not just Theresa, either. I remember reading this in Miss Manners: "males" and "females" are generally used for animals, and border on rude or too casual for people.
    – Maverick
    Oct 27, 2021 at 13:32
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Very broadly, “man” and “woman” describe things while “male” and “female” describe characteristics of those things.

Who would not be happy to view a man as a male person?

Who would be happy to view a female as a woman person?

"I am a 23-year-old male", or such like, is accepted in every-day speech but that doesn't make it correct…

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    So you're saying all the dictionaries are wrong for listing male and female as nouns as well as adjectives?
    – Robusto
    Jun 25, 2020 at 0:30
  • No, Robusto; not at all, That's why I used "very broadly." Do you not think my very simple examples apply to Kali's queries? For you, what's left uncovered? Before we get to people-persons-person, would you not be happy to view a woman as a female person? Can you really see a male as a man person? Jun 25, 2020 at 12:32
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    Connotation matters, too. It is accurate to say that someone is an animal, but it doesn't feel as polite.
    – Maverick
    Oct 27, 2021 at 13:33
  • Also broadly, how likely are we to say "There was a male…" as opposed to "There were two males and three females"? That might be as likely as "two men and three women…" but that's largely because In both cases the numbers are made more important when the people are treated as things. (Ignoring their ages. "Males" includes boys as well as men…) Outside a policeman's official statement, when did you hear "There was a male…"; even "… a male person…"? When there's only one, it's too obvious the subject is a person, not a thing, so we use "man" rather than "male". Oct 27, 2021 at 20:08

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