The Word ‘Man’ was Originally Gender Neutral

genderToday I found out that the word ‘man’ was originally gender neutral, meaning more or less the same as the modern day word “person”.  It wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that the word “man” started to refer to a male and it wasn’t until the late 20th century that it was almost exclusively used to refer to males.

Before “man” meant a male, the word “wer” or “wǣpmann” was commonly used to refer to “male human”.  This word almost completely died out around the 1300s, but survives somewhat in words like “werewolf”, which literally means “man wolf”.

Women at the time were referred to as “wif” or “wīfmann“, meaning “female human”.  The latter “wifmann”, eventually evolved into the word “woman”, but retained its original meaning.  The word “wif” itself eventually evolved into “wife”, with its meaning obviously being changed slightly.

Interestingly, the word ‘men’, meaning “to think” or “to have a cognitive mind”, was also gender neutral and connected to “man”, which meant “the thinker”.  So we can see from that how “man” originally referred to all humans.

Largely due to the stigma that using the word “man” meaning “humans” is supposedly sexist, despite its original meaning, the use of the word “man” in that fashion has all but disappeared in the last 50-100 years, with it now only showing up in words like “human” and “mankind” as referring to both male and female.  Even those instances still garners quite a bit of controversy in terms of being thought of as sexist, despite these words predating the point when “man” meant “male” only.

One interesting convention that was thought up in the early 1900s to deal with this issue of “man” coming to mean both male and female and also sometimes meaning males exclusively is, in literature, to do the following: when referring to humans, “man” should be capitalized as in “Man”; when referring to “man” as in “male”, it is to be left lower case.  This convention was used in such literary works as “The Lord of the Rings” and was a key point in the prophecy concerning the Witch-king of Angmar: “no man can kill me”, meaning that according to the prophecy a woman, Eowyn, could because “man” in the prophecy was not capitalized.

Expand for References:
Share the Knowledge! Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail
Print Friendly
Enjoy this article? Join over 50,000 Subscribers getting our FREE Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 

50 comments

  • That’s what I was told in some university etymology class: “wer” as in werewolf meant a male human at one time.

    “Woman” (according to the same class, is a contraction of something like “wife-man”, or “person who is wife”. I know this flies in the face of some theories involving women having wombs, but makes a lot more sense in terms of the evolution of words.

  • Yeah, I remember telling some people at work this because I use the word “man” all the time as gender neutral because it sure beats using the word “person”. They try to correct me to use it incorrectly but I just told them that if they knew how they could look it up in a dictionary – it’s usually in the No. 3 slot of the meaning.

    So they did and the correctors were corrected. I learned a lot that day as later they laid me off.

  • Sorry for the job loss, secretagentman. I’ve had pretty much the same thing happen to me. The politically correct hate being shown up. On the other hand, we’re in good company. Winston Churchill was speaking in Parliament in the 1920s and Lady Astor called him down for using “Man” to mean “the human race”. He responded, “Grammarians will attest that Man embraces woman, unless otherwise stated in the text.”

    If I could BEGIN to have the grasp and command of the language that Sir Winston had I’d be happy.

    • Churchill did not have a command of the language at that point, because English has enough words to avoid being misunderstood and he chose deliberately not to use them. Surely an intelligent person can grasp the fact that ‘man’ (males only)is used far more frequently than ‘Man’ and in a speech, ‘Man’ and ‘man’ sound identical. We therefore cannot attest to when it (more commonly) excludes or includes women at all. It is for this reason, that Canada no longer uses the term ‘l’homme’ sorry ‘l’Homme’ to mean humankind. They consider, oddly enough, when they want to refer to both sexes, it is more intelligent not use a term that,today, refers to one of them.

      • I think you missed the point entirely. Churchill was making a triple entendre. 1) Man has meant “person” in English longer than it has meant “male person” and if someone wants to specify man as meaning “male person” the text will state such. 2) Male people will (naturally) physically embrace female people unless they state their desire to not do so. 3) This was a thinly veiled statement about how much Churchill himself didn’t like Lady Astor. The statement itself IS his personal “unless otherwise stated” toward her.

        • Diogenes the Cynic

          Lady Astor was a terrible misandrist. She once said “I married beneath me. All women do!” I’ve been talking about the perpetually offended and how they shouldn’t be pandered to, but if they’re female they frequently are (whereas the perpetually offended male is rightfully jeered at). But if there have been women in history that have felt that “All women marry beneath them” (because they marry men) then it is understandable that they’d be offended at being called “men” when they felt they were better than men.

  • This reminds me of the historical meaning of the word “girl”, which originally meant a child of either sex. Also back in the 19th century blue was the colour of choice for female children, while pink was for boys.

  • What I find interesting, especially among so called “feminists” (I myself am an equalist) that the women (and men) use “Guys” for both men and women as well as just for women, when that is a male term. Guy is completely male, yet, I see it used as referring to objects and Guys is both people and objects. If someone tells me they actually care about equality and use the word Guys for men and women I call them on it, since it’s 100 percent hypocritical.

    • Diogenes the Cynic

      What the hell are you talking about? Who uses the word “guys” to refer to objects? There’s nothing hypocritical about it. The feminine equivalent to guys was dolls. This was considered sexist because it implied passivity and objectification (because a doll is the name of a toy). However the toy is named second. Doll originally meant mistress (hence a young woman) and was short for Dorothy, and had been around since the 16th century. Figurines only started being called dolls in the 17th century. They were named after women because the first ones were of women. Words for woman have always been on the euphemism treadmill because women are so adept at finding ways to be offended by whatever you call them! Only women could take offence to the word “she” as in “who’s she, the cat’s mother?” Throughout the generations, and it’s possibly something to do with the primary care giver role, there have been women suspecting that they are being given less than the appropriate level of respect so they’ve been on full alert looking for ways that they may be being disrespected, and that policing leads to words for female persons changing all the time, whereas the words for male persons just proliferate without check. An easily offended male is, quite rightly, a figure for ridicule. An easily offended female is unfortunately too frequently pandered to. So actually I wonder if it was originally women who rejected the word “man”. “I am NOT a MAN! I am a WIFman! hurumph!” Not a man; a man would be an ordinary thing to be. Where’s my pedestal?!

  • I used to say that I was an ‘equalist’ but then someone told me that by using this term it implies that although I may be in support of equality between sexes, i’m not acknowledging the inequality that we have now like the term feminist does. So now I’m a feminist but not an eco-feminist. I have also had trouble with the use of the term ‘guys’, I tend to use it for both genders as most of my friends do but not sure if I should, maybe guys will become the new old ‘man’ if you know what I mean. 😉

  • Yeah, I know, I got scolded before for using “Guys” in mixed groups, and I lost that debate a loooong time ago. It really isn’t “gender neutral” and I can see how it can be offensive

  • The comment on ‘guys’ and the use of ‘man’ for both men and women, PLUS only the male human in the proper context, reminds me of the Spanish use of “ellas’ for a feminine ‘them/they’, ‘ellos’ for a masculine ‘themthey’, BUT only ‘ellos’ for referring to a mixed group of females and males. I don’t know if this is the case for the other Romance ‘languages’ – which really are Latin dialects.

  • Um…guys?? Maybe you should consider checking out the etymology of the word GUY before you get all up on your high horse 😉 lol
    I’m not a feminist, but I am an equalist.
    There are some errors in the work on both this website and the responses…if you’re using this page for research…be sure to research research research 🙂

    • Right..so Guy has “progressed” into being gender neutral right..that’s why when someone says “All the GUYS stand up” then everyone stands up right?? Uhh..no sweetie.nice try

  • Unfortunately, my female teacher at Spain told me that woman comes from womb man, in order to show how male-centred and miserable this world is. Luckily, I suspect anyone who tries to preach feminist ideology and found out that was just a feminist hoax.

    • Diogenes the Cynic

      I find that credible, and it’s not particularly feminist. It still arrives at the same conclusion that “man” is gender neutral, with woman being a specific variety.

  • Ok now guys, the femi-nazis on this page just need to simmer right down. If you are seriously that concerned about people calling you man, guy, dude, or whatever; get a life. Now I’m all for equal rights, wages, job opportunities, and everything else, but if you put so much stock in a completely harmless word that it actually offends you then dude, you have issues. Now if someone is calling you a slur, such as slut, whore, hooker, skank, etc. I can see taking offense to that. But if someone says something to the effect of “hey guys, let’s go get a milkshake” then you should probably just go get a milkshake, or better yet a big tall glass of s.t.f.u. and save the whiny femi-nazi crap for later when you’re at your man-hating lesbian vegan book of the month club. I will step down off my soap box now and let you all get back to reading “Eat, Pray, Queef.”

  • @Asstuary – wouldn’t that be “Man hating” as the article stated lower case “man” referred to the female gender? I’m seeing some mild linguisti-cops here possibly but nothing nazi-ish about the above comments. “Ish” being the Hebrew word for man – “isha” for woman” btw – and I’ll bet if we took a head count of the real Nazis we’d find that 95% were male so not sure your slur was war-anted. nor do I personally feel that a poisonous word such as Nazi should be used against regular “guys” and “gals” who aren’t plotting genocide but just having a discussion that includes their free will, free country choice of how they view the topic.The world would be a far better place if there were fewer warmongers and more vegan book clubbing praying eaters who are queefing.. Sounds like maybe you don’t have a queefer of your own and the loneliness has you slightly bitter? Or is there something else you are trying to convey? Then be clear Man! Or man. Whichever it may be. And may the Queef be with you! 🙂

  • 7 U.S. Code § 136

    (d) Animal
    The term “animal” means all vertebrate and invertebrate species, including but not limited to man and other mammals, birds, fish, and shellfish.

    Your federal Government has defined Man as an animal.
    Does that mean anything to any of you?

    • AllIknowcouldbewrong

      Shhh! No one is supposed to catch on!

      I enjoy thinking of Homo not-so-sapiens as ‘manimals’ – just for fun.

    • No, because humans are a form of animal. It’s pretty obvious visually, structurally and biologically.

  • AllIknowcouldbewrong

    An interesting article, not soley on the origin or words, but also on the corruption of their meaning, or the co-option of them by certain groups (‘gay’ means ‘happy, lighthearted’, and has nothing to do with sexual orientation, for instance). I’ve seen etymological references attributing the origin of the word ‘man’ as gender neutral, but comming from the Latin ‘mannus’ meaning hand.

  • In the English language, the word “man” does double duty; it means two things. For English has only one word (“man”) where many other languages have two. In Latin, for instance, homo means “human being” and vir means “male human being.” In Greek, anthropos and aner bear the same distinction. When English writers said, “God and man” they did not mean “God and males.”

  • If man is originally gender neutral with wifman and werman being the gender specific words, what prompted the men who developed the English language to use man for both male centric and neutral contexts, while the female gender still had only female specific words to describe them. It feels a lot like a lot of men think they are so much more important than women, that when talking about people in general males can represent an entire group of anyone, but women can only be good for certain things and are shoved in an exclusive category separate from men altogether. Is this a principal in the other languages that use male words in male specific and neutral contexts, that leave feminine words as solely that?

    • Werman & wifman were English, just not modern English. I think the shift you refer to came from non-fiction authors writing about hypothetical people in their theories and thought experiments, i.e. men. “Imagine a man wearing a red hat,” for example. Most of the authors and readers for centuries were men, because they were the ones educated in reading and writing. So, when they imagined a hypothetical person, for example, they were more likely to imagine themselves or another male human.

      Of course this is complete conjecture on my part. But, as something I have thought through before, this was the best reasoning I could come up with.

    • That’s because Old English had fickle gender assignments like modern-day German, and the word for our species, from which “man” derived, was masculine in gender. That resulted in the modern English word “man” being sex-specific. German has the same problem with its own word for our species, “Mensch,” which, due to it too closely resembling the male-specific “Mann,” has got to be the most epic fail as a name for our species. It’s masculine in gender, which is why Germans avoid it like the plague when referring to women.

    • Honey Badger Brigade

      That doesn’t even make sense. Why would they use the gender neutral term then and not the male-specific term, wereman? Why wouldn’t they just say weremen represent all persons?

  • I am 63 years old. We were taught in school as a part of Biology that Mankind was a subset under the Animal Kingdom. “Subset” may be an incorrect word in the field of Biology – I don’t remember exactly – but Mankind was a species. And the word was always to be capitalized. “Man” was simply short for “Mankind” when it was being used to describe all of humanity. One doesn’t capitalize it when it is describing a single male person, or, as in “men”, more than one male person.
    It wasn’t until the “politically correct” movement began in the 80’s and 90’s that it started to be arbitrarily redefined by some as sexist. This was always ridiculous to me. It’s as though these people don’t know that most words have more than one definition and often they are definitions that are completely different. The word “monitor”, for example, means a computer screen, a giant lizard, the teacher’s helper in a schoolroom, and to watch over something or someone. “Man” simply means humanity in general and it has no sexist connotation whatsoever, except to those who wish to assert that there is somehow a problem with it. And to them I say…”get a life!”

    • Agree. My 1920’s Oxford massive tome of a dictionary gives the first definition of MAN as meaning: Of the human species. I will not say Humankind, nor any other tedious, ridiculous manipulation (humanipulation, for those who kow-tow) of my language.

  • This is from Webster’s 1828: (See Google books, the online version is not the same)

    HU’MAN,

    1. Belonging to man or mankind; pertaining or relating to the race of man; as a human voice; human shape; human nature; human knowledge; human life.

    2. Having the qualities of a man.

    3. Profane; not sacred or divine; [obs.]

  • Man still means “human being” as of today.
    it’s simply a secondary or literary meaning in the english language because of the politically correct brainwashing (which is destroying the english language, because “he” is the only existing gender neutral singular pronoun).
    Context easily establishes if you’re referring to a human being, or to a male only human being.
    Until the 1990s it was still common, it didn’t disappeared 50 or 100 years ago.

    The translation of “man” means human being and it’s completely standard in most languages of the world, which also have gender in adjectives and nouns and use the masculine as gender neutral.

  • Spiraling systems

    Language changes, and while its good to know the etiology, at this point it would take another 1000 years to shake the very clearly gendered meaning that man is now imbued with. its good to know where it came from, but its root meaning isn’t enough to negate the need for what is now gender neutral language or gender equal language.

  • Im going to use the word Man pointing to Neutral Gender :For my psychology reading assignment
    I thought Man was still refrence to Female and Male

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *