What a Piece of Wording is Man!

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 2, Scene II), William Shakespeare

In the passage above, Hamlet plays on the double meaning of Man as a term for any human being regardless of sex/gender identity on the one hand and Man as a sex/gender identity distinct from Woman on the other. So in the first sense, every woman is a man, as every man is a man, but in the second sense a woman is not a man as a man is a man.

When I use the word ‘man’, I usually mean a human being with anatomical features that distinguish them as a male of the species. Masculinity is thus caused by the balance of steroids in the body: more androgens and less oestrogens making the person male rather than female, and the balance of steroids influenced by chromosomes (XY for male, XX for female), along with other, epigenetic, factors.

Not everyone will necessarily mean this when using the word ‘man’, however. Some use the word to refer to a (somewhat nebulous, in my opinion) gender identity; others will use the word to refer to the human race as a whole; often all three senses would be used by the same speaker but in different contexts (or even together, as Hamlet did).

J. R. R. Tolkien used the capitalised ‘Man/Men’ for humans in general but ‘man/men’ and ‘woman/women’ (without capitalisation) for human individuals with an identifiable sex/gender. Thus in The Silmarillion, Haleth the woman demonstrates the valour of Men to Carathir the (male) Elf. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien plays a similar game to Shakespeare’s Hamlet above (yet maybe more like Macduff’s revelation in Macbeth) when Éowyn (a woman) faces the Witch-king of Angmar (“not by the hand of man will he fall” according to Glorfindel). The reasons why these puns of species and sex or gender are possible in Modern English are what I’m writing about in this article.

Modern English ‘man’ is derived from Old English mann, which meant a human person with no distinction made between male or female and could also be used as an indefinite pronoun, equivalent to the Modern English ‘one’, as in “One wonders how many people are actually going to read this”. Man is still used this way in Modern German, while mann in Modern German means male human but the related word Mensch means human regardless of sex/gender. The sex/gender connotations did not show up until about a thousand years ago, when Old English was being replaced by Middle English (with the aforementioned French influence). That’s not to say that there were no sex/gender distinctions in Old English, there were; in fact, there wer.

An adult male human in Old English was a wer (cognate to Latin vir, as in Modern English ‘virile’, and to Old Irish fer which became Modern Irish fear meaning an adult male human) and an adult female human was a wif (Modern English wife). Now wer has more or less disappeared except for words like werewolf (literally man-wolf, a modernised spelling for Old English werwulf) and wergild (literally man-gold, blood money owed for a dead man), the latter of which is more or less limited to so-called fantasy fiction or academia. The original sense of wif survives in ‘fishwife’, the phrase “Old wives’ tales” and in the ritual language of a marriage ceremony “I now pronounce you man and wife” (the terms husband and wife are not equivalent, in this sense).

The sense of ‘man’ as a human person, regardless of sex/gender identity survives in mankind, manslaughter, chessmen (which include the Queen) et cetera but eventually ‘man’ replaced wer far more completely than any word managed to replace wif. The meaning, if not the entire pronunciation of wif survives in the Modern English word ‘woman’, which comes from late Old English wimman (wifmann or wife-man, female human).

So ‘man’, left to its own devices (not undergoing any major phonetic changes) develops into a word for a male human unless wif is added to make a word for female human, which is practically the opposite of what happens in human embryonic development where the embryo, left to its own devices becomes a female human unless the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome) is added to make a male. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of biological sex-differentiation and there are exceptions when androgen insensitivity syndrome is present or if the SRY gene is defective or whatever. Anyway, ‘man’ plus wif is woman; embryo plus SRY is male.

So, that’s biological sex with genes and chromosomes, and oestrogens and androgens, and gonads et cetera. Then there’s gender with uh…. Whatever gender is…… Something about who gets to wear dresses?

Gender as applied to human beings is a strange thing. The terminological differentiation between gender and biological sex did not exist before 1955 when it was introduced by the sexologist John Money. Before Money (the man, not the currency), gender was used almost exclusively to describe grammatical categories. He used the word ‘gender’ as distinct from sex to describe societal roles as distinct from biological realities.

Money’s usage did not become widespread until the 1970s and seems to have undergone a shift in understanding since then. I recently had to fill out a form where I was asked whether my gender was male or female but was not asked about my biological sex. It seems that ‘gender’ is now used for biological sex as well as societal roles, ignoring the distinction that it was originally called on to make.

The Modern English sense of gender described above also seems to be creeping into other languages. German, which has traditionally used Geschlecht for biological sex and for the social norms which become attached, has now begun to use the English word Gender to describe the societal concept.

Whereas French, apparently taking its cue from English has used the word genre (to which the English word ‘gender’ is cognate). Of course, English in the meantime has decided to use the French word to describe types of art. So, science-fiction is a literary genre and therefore science-fiction is a gender of literature (but not a biological sex of literature).

English ‘gender’ and French genre are both derived from Old French gendre, which was borrowed into Middle English along with many, many, many other French words around the time of the Norman conquest of English. The Old French word meant ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and came from Latin genus which means ‘type’ or ‘kind’. Genus (apart from its use in biology) is also the root of words like ‘generation’ and ‘genocide’.

So gender has nothing to do with men but everything to do with men and women (if you see what I mean). Also, all women are men, all men are women with an SRY gene, and mankind is not necessarily a gendered term but womankind certainly is. However, referring to women as men can be controversial. You can probably do so in sentences like “Hey man, what’s up?” (where ‘man’ is interchangeable with ‘dude’), though if in doubt as to how offended your female friend might be if you call her a man, you may want to say “Hey woman what’s up?” (where ‘woman’ is interchangeable with ‘dudette’ or more likely ‘dude’ because ‘dudette’ is a rarely used word).

Any thoughts?


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