Man! Unbiased Language Can Be Confusing

by Barbara Kamienski

Published at 2017-11-23

A while back, we at TEC were chatting over lunch about Word On The Street, and I mentioned that I had once manned a booth at the event. The reaction was an awkward pause, followed by “Manned a booth?”


The question was, of course, one of gender neutrality. Shouldn’t I have said “staffed” instead? Didn’t “manning” imply a bias towards staffing being a male bailiwick? So I did what any reasonable person would do; I trotted out my Grade 9 Latin and pointed out that the verb “to man” came from the Latin word for hand, manus, just like many other English words that had nothing whatsoever to do with gender: “manufacture,” “manual,” “manage,” “manicure,” and of course (of particular interest to us editors), “manuscript.”  


Inclusive Language

It’s 2017, and we’ve long become accustomed to using neutral substitutes for the gendered or sexist terms that once were bandied about without a second thought. The stewardesses and waitresses of bygone decades are now flight attendants and servers, the mailmen are mail carriers, and the housewives and househusbands are stay-at-home parents or spouses. And rightly so. Inclusive language goes beyond political correctness* and aims to diminish the power of stereotypes and promote respect for the humanity of all people.


How Useful Is Etymology?

With that in mind, I wanted to ensure that the etymological explanation I had fired off so offhandedly was actually correct. Was manning a booth in fact related to the idea of “all hands on deck,” as I liked to think? Alas, when I checked the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, I found the following at the end of the entry containing the verb “to man”: [Old English man(n), pl. menn, mannian, from Germanic]. No mention of manus.


Okay, so I was wrong. But suppose I had been right? Would that have changed anything? When understanding of a word’s meaning has shifted, how helpful is it to thrash out its origins? For every person who’s willing to change their understanding of a word based on water-tight etymological argumentation, there are ten who will simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s not how it’s being used nowadays.” As sensibilities in society at large change, there’s little point in clinging to bygone verbiage, trying to turn back the linguistic clock.  


Shifting Usage, New Words

But trying to keep up with the ongoing metamorphosis of the English language can be a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Faster than you can say “blip” new words appear, old words acquire new meanings, and the slang of only a few years ago is utterly passé.  “Cool” is still cool, but using words like “tizzy,” “swell,” or “nifty” brands you as a hopeless 1930s movie nerd. Did you say “kale” to mean money? Puh-lease! Kale is a superfood, or didn’t you know? “Awesome” was downgraded years ago, while “vanilla” has taken on connotations that ice cream manufacturers might not find amusing. The list goes on and on. With new words and acronyms appearing at a lightning speed, who can keep up?


Speaking of New Words: Let Me Humansplain This to You

Which, coming full circle, brings us to “mansplaining” — clearly not derived from manus and about as far from unbiased language as you can get. In this case, of course, that’s the point; it’s social commentary in a nutshell. But at a time when we’re (ostensibly) trying to move towards unbiased language and behaviour, should we use such words? Can we actually be as unbiased as we say we’d like to be? And if we do achieve a total lack of bias in our speech and writing, do we run the risk of watering down our opinions to the point of meaninglessness?


Common Sense

I suppose this is where common sense and self-reflection come in. Words exist for their meaning, so it behooves us to be mindful of how we use them. We need to stay abreast of language trends to the best of our ability, and decide for ourselves which ones to embrace and which ones to ignore. It’s the best way to be sure that we say what we mean — and mean what we say!



*For more on inclusive language, see this Chicago Manual of Style interview with editor Sarah Grey.