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I've seen some times the claim that in the past "man" was a non-gendered word, with "wifman" referring to female individuals and "wereman" referring to male individuals. I've found some indications that "wifman" was either a predecessor or a complement to "woman", and even the root for the current "wife". I've failed to find solid information regarding "man" being a truly neutral word (and not just a masculine word applied to both female and male individuals) and "wereman" or any alternative being the default word for male individuals.

So, was "man" a non-gendered word in the English language or its predecessors at some point, with different words derived from it (as woman is today) to refer to both male and female individuals?

Note: My main language is entirely gendered, and we have no way to address someone in a gender-neutral way that is common usage. If anything comes across as rude, please say so and I'll correct it. I understand this may be a sensitive topic.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jan 15 at 3:25
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  • @LordHieros: If you are interested only in the distant past, in which wifman and wereman were used, it would be a good idea to make that clearer, and in particular to make it explicit in the title of the question. The current wording of the question and its title will keep attracting a lot of people who are interested in the debates about the use of man at present and in the recent past. – jsw29 Jan 15 at 6:38
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    @jsw29 I wanted a comprehensive answer, not just limited to a time period, which is why I did not specify strictly distant past; if I knew exactly the usage of the term I wouldn't have needed to ask. I think Taliesin gives a great overview to the question as posed, and wouldn't want to alter it fundamentally after a good answer already exists – LordHieros Jan 15 at 10:33
  • @LordHieros, the accepted answer is about Old English. That very illuminating answer carefully avoids getting into the controversial issues about the more recent and current use of man. The other contributors to this page are, however, interested precisely in discussing these controversial issues, and the title of the question is likely to attract more of such discussion. – jsw29 Jan 15 at 16:45
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Man in Old English could be either gendered or non-gendered. We inherited that ambiguity.

In Old English, man referred to both an adult male and a human being of either sex. Here is Stephen A. Barney in Word-Hoard: An Introduction to Old English Vocabulary, entry 8:

Mann serves for both "adult male" and "human being (of either sex)," in English; the other Germanic langs. adopted distinct words for the two senses: ModG Mann and Mensch "human being." The latter form occurs in OE (not in our texts) as mennisc (adj.) "human(s)," which survived to the 12th c. The OE terms which discriminate sexes are wer (Lat. vir) and wif (+ man = woman). ModG, like OE, has man in nom. (unstressed) meaning "one" (cf. French on).

Compounds include an early version of mankind, man-cynn. So what we have is a word that can refer to either adult males or human beings. Furthermore, it was sometimes hard to distinguish these uses. While the context makes telling them apart easily enough in this usage OED:

lOE Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Laud) anno 639 Þæs dohter wæs gehaten Ercongota halifemne, & wundorlic man. (This daughter was called Eorcengota holywoman and wonderful man)

Can you tell which man is meant in the next two uses? Testicles makes the second men obvious. The first manne (referring to men being hanged for thievery) is rather harder, unless you believe that only men could be hanged for thievery.

lOE Anglo-Saxon Chron. (Laud) (Peterborough contin.) anno 1124 Þet wæron on þa litle hwile ealles feower & feowerti manne, & six men spilde of here ægon & of here stanes. (There were in a little while four and forty men*, and six **men spoiled of their eyes and their testicles.)

Or how about the following usage? In the Old English Homilies, did Jesus became both man (an adult male) or man (a human being) for us? Either fits.

a1200 MS Trin. Cambr. in R. Morris Old Eng. Homilies (1873) 2nd Ser. 199 (MED) He bi-com man for us.

Also, to the extent we've been discussing a word in a language that still had grammatical gender, man in Old English is masculine. While grammatical gender should not be confused with biological gender (see Latin poeta, agricola, incola, nauta, all appear feminine in form but function masculine when modified by adjectives and most likely refer to men), grammatical gender doesn't help us distinguish semantically gender-neutral cases here.

So it would oversimplify to calling this usage gender-neutral OR strictly gendered, since the reading as adult male and the reading as human being may lead to ambiguity. Furthermore, such ambiguity doesn't exist for any word that refers to women - wif, bryd, faemne, cwene, and other words for women do not enjoy double-status as words referring to humans in general. Thus, while Old English man could be used to refer to human beings (including individual women), man (and the adult male it sometimes refers to) possesses a dual quality that woman and other female terms lack.

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    Indeed: the 1662 Prayer Book version of the Nicene Creed has "...who for us men, and for our salvation..." and that definitely does not exclude half the human race. – Andrew Leach Jan 14 at 20:36
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    I find this anwswer really comprehensive, and highlighting what I'd missed: that usage of the word man in a non-gendered and gendered way is undistinguishable in most cases. Plus, since nowadays we still can refer to humanity as mankind, I guess it's a bit of a moot point. I'll be accepting this answer after the 24h courtesy period, most likely. – LordHieros Jan 14 at 21:42
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    @LordHieros For bonus points, "girl" used to mean young person, and "boy" used to mean servant (though usually male). And it's much the same for the so-called male pronoun, "he" - it's already the gender-neutral pronoun, there's no need for some "they" or such. Even "she" doesn't necessarily mean a female - it's also used as an affectionate pronoun for all sort of subjects. In the end, gender distinction just doesn't matter most of the time, so it's not weird language doesn't reflect it much (even in gendered languages). And our son used to call us both "mama", regardless of gender :) – Luaan Jan 15 at 10:23
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    Adding to this: apparently "wereman"/"wærman" was supplanted by just "man" in the 1300s. (This actually has interesting conjugations with marriage ceremonies: traditionally the pronouncement was as "man and wife" - or, earlier than that, as "wer and wif" - rather than "husband and wife", because "husband" (from the Norse "hus-bondi" meaning "house owner") also wasn't gendered.) – Chronocidal Jan 15 at 11:16
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    @EricDuminil assuming that is what the original Greek means, how else would you propose to translate it? ("Adults self-identifying as male" sounds like a quote from a police report...) Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And most common words have many more than one sense defined in dictionaries. – alephzero Jan 15 at 21:03
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I'm old enough to remember when "man" or the combining for "-man" was just common usage. "All men are created equal" was just taken for granted as meaning "All persons were created equal." Words like spokesman, craftsman, chairman, etc. were easy to use and didn't raise any gender questions.

Of course "man" could also be used in a strictly male sense. "Be a man, my son." "This is a job for a strong man." etc.

So you have a word which COULD be gender-specific or COULD be used otherwise. Languages aren't always consistent.

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    Man has not been gender-neutral within the lifespan of anyone currently alive. The plural, men, is a different story, but singular man is only (possibly) gender-neutral as a suffix. “There’s a man at the door” is quite unambiguously gendered in Modern English (and was probably even heavily skewed towards genderedness even in Old English). [The non-count use is also a different matter, of course, referring to mankind in general.] – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 at 23:47
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jan 20 at 15:17
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Yes. From the Oxford English Dictionary (subscription required):

Man was considered until the 20th cent. to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males. It is now frequently understood to exclude women, and is therefore avoided by many people.

and then, before beginning its selection of quotations, remarks

In some of the quotations in this section, it is difficult or impossible to tell whether man is intended to mean ‘person’ or ‘male human being’.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jan 20 at 15:17
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There have been many historical uses of man to mean all people well into the 20th century as well. In 1942, Disney released Bambi which has this line

BAMBI: What happened mother? Why did we all run?

BAMBI'S MOTHER: Man was in the forest

Time Magazine had a long running tradition of naming a Man of the Year (Person of the Year since 1999). While women named were Woman of the Year, when they would name a group of people, that group would be Man of the Year. 1967 featured Baby Boomers

enter image description here

In 1962, the Twilight Zone had one of its most famous episodes, To Serve Man, in which aliens come with vast knowledge, ostensibly to help all mankind. The title, however,

is a bit of a pun. "To Serve Man", a book the aliens have, is not how to help mankind, but how to best cook the people they take back to their planet.

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The 1662 A Brief and Easie Explanation of the Shorter Catechism says:

Q.[...] Did God create man both Male, and Female, after his own Image?
...
A. God created Man, Male and Female, after his own Image ...

The 1674 The Body of Divinity, Or, a Confession of Faith says:

God made man in his own image, male and female he created them. He created Man both Male and Female ; for by the word Man, is intended Mankind, i. e. both Man and Woman.

  • Nice quote, but it does seem that the author then felt compelled to clarify straightaway that by Man they meant mankind and inclusive of both Man and Woman – Martin Smith Jan 16 at 22:25
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    @MartinSmith - I don't think he is clarifying inclusiveness of Man and Woman, since the words used are 'Male' and 'Female'. What is being stated, is that He created Man in two forms. – Glen Yates Jan 17 at 0:15
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    @GlenYates did you click through and read the full quote? "He created Man both Male and Female; for by the word man is intended mankind; i.e. both Man and Woman". Definitely sounds like he is clarifying what is meant by the term there – Martin Smith Jan 17 at 0:19
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The simplest and by far the most famous example of this recent change is, of course:

In "old" Star Trek

"To boldly go where no man has gone before"

and in new Star Trek

"To boldly go where no one has gone before"

This is a fascinating question.

For anyone born before, oh, 1980 the answer to the title question

Was “man” a gender-neutral word in common usage at some point?

is ... "yes, of course, obviously."

BUT for folks born after about 1980 (?), it's a question!


Another exceedingly famous example of the "old" usage is, of course, one of the most famous utterances in English, and, the first utterance ever, off-world:

"One small step for man..."

So that was July 20, 1969. That year, it was utterly universal to use 'man' as 'human'.

Don't even mention "mankind" which is also on the way out these days.

  • See ndtv.com/world-news/… 'As the American astronaut himself pointed out many times, the sentence is meaningful only if he says, "That's one small step for a man."' – CJ Dennis Jan 21 at 14:52

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