Think twice before using "mankind" to mean "all humanity," say scholars

What's wrong with "mankind"? It's at the heart of one of the greatest semantic debates of our time. Some say the word is gender-neutral and means "all humanity." To others, "mankind" sounds gender specific and means "a bunch of men without women." They prefer "humanity" or "humankind." So who is correct? To find out, I spoke with several scholars who study the history of the English language and linguistics — and even consulted an etymologist with the Oxford English Dictionary.

Nothing less than the future of mankind is at stake.

Photograph of astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper via NASA

Where Does "Mankind" Come From?
In modern English, we use the word "man" to mean "a male person." Earlier in the development of our language, "man" was used to mean "humans," but that time has passed. As the Oxford English Dictionary's principle etymologist Philip Durkin told io9:

The word man is now rare in the meaning "human being in general" . . . Already in the 1800s it was largely confined to literary or proverbial use in this meaning, other words such as person or people being more commonly used instead.

Nevertheless, the word mankind comes from the more gender-neutral use of the word man.

Or rather, the word man comes from a very different word, "mann," used in a language spoken over 1,000 years ago on an island where England and Scotland are today. That language is called Old English or Anglo-Saxon, and it was spoken and written down by the dominant English island tribes of the late first millennium AD. Unlike modern English, Anglo-Saxon had two words that could mean male: mann, which could also mean "humans," and "wæpenmann," which meant "person with a weapon and/or penis," and only referred to males.

Think twice before using "mankind" to mean "all humanity," say scholars

University of Pennsylvania linguist Anthony Kroch explains that the original Anglo-Saxon "mann" is called an autohyponym, or "a word which can mean both a member of a category and a member of one of its subcategories." He added:

This happens with animal names quite a lot: dog/bitch, fox/vixen, goose/gander, duck/drake. In these pairs, the first member both means the animal in general and one sex of the animal. Another example might be: house/apartment, where "house" can either mean a free standing human dwelling or any dwelling.

In modern English, man is used very infrequently as an autohyponym. Possibly that's because it's become too confusing to use "man" — it's hard to know what it means in any given context when we have no word like wæpenmann that refers exclusively to males. But we do have the words "person" and "human" that clearly refer to both sexes, so those have eclipsed "man" when speaking about everyone. Linguistics researcher Dave Wilton, author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends explains:

In modern English we only have the unmarked "man" and the marked "woman" to refer to the two sexes, but in Old English there was also the marked "wæpenmann" that referred only to males (literally "weapon-man," either referring to arms or to the penis) and "wif" and "wifmann" meaning "woman" (the origin of the modern "wife" and "woman"). So in Old English "mann" is a bit more gender neutral than "man" is in modern English, but not entirely so.

Basically, in modern English, we have no equivalent to the word "mann." Our contemporary word man may look more like "mann," but over time its use has evolved to be closer to "wæpenmann," a male person.

The word "mankind" can be traced back to a specific use of this lost word "mann" from the Anglo-Saxon word "mann-cynn," meaning both a group of men and all humanity. The OED's Durkin said, "The word mankind was formed from man and kind [as in] 'type, sort.' It has always much more typically shown the meaning 'humanity in general' rather than 'adult male human beings in general'." But, he cautioned, the word "man" is rarely used these days to mean "all humanity." So "mankind" retained its gender-neutral meaning in English for much longer than "man" did.

What is Gender Neutral?
But when you're talking about something as messy as the evolution of language, nothing is ever that simple. You can't just throw around a term like "gender neutral" without interrogating what exactly that means. "A word like 'person' is presumably gender neutral because it carries no information about the sex of its referent," Kroch said. "Is an autohyponym like 'mann' not gender neutral because it can mean either 'person' or 'male person'?"

Think twice before using "mankind" to mean "all humanity," say scholars

Several scholars seemed to feel that the word "mann-cynn" may not have been as neutral as you'd think. UC Santa Barbara professor and Anglo-Saxon expert Carol Pasternack commented:

I don't think it is possible to tell whether the word [mankind] derives from "man" as a neuter pronoun or from "man" as a male human (both were possible).

She raises a good point that many contemporary English speakers forget. Just because we view the word "mankind" as neutral doesn't mean that it was originally used that way.

NYU Anglo Saxon researcher Mo Pareles amplifies Pasternack's point:

While it's appropriate to translate the Old English "mann-cynn" as either mankind or humanity, it's disingenuous to imagine that this usage comes without sexist trappings. Although women had important roles in Anglo-Saxon society—don't imagine them as Victorian house-angels or 1950s housewives—Anglo-Saxons had one concept for "humanity" and "mankind" in large part because they had a male-dominated concept of humanity.

To a person who spoke Anglo-Saxon, the word "mann-cynn" may have been synonymous with "humanity" because they didn't think women were important. From the perspective of people 1,000 years ago, humanity really was "a group of men."

Anglo-Saxon culture was so dramatically different from our own that it may not be appropriate to use terms like "gender neutral" to describe concepts like "Mann" and "Mann-cynn." The very idea of gender neutral terms is a relatively modern invention. Projecting it back into the 900s might erase the true historical meanings of these terms, which were after all used by people who would never have dreamt that one day women would define humankind as much as men did.

Should You Use "Mankind" or "Humanity"?
Given the ambiguous history of our language, what is a modern speaker and writer to do? Should we keep using "mankind" because its historical use sort of fits into an idea of "gender neutrality" we invented relatively recently? Pasternack has a simple answer:

Regarding using a term today as gender-neutral because it seems likely to be gender-neutral in the 10th or even the fifteenth century, meanings are what they are today, not what they were then. Many words change meaning and tone over time.

Given that today's use of the word "man" is almost never gender neutral, that would seem to suggest that we should be using "humanity" or "humankind" if we want to be precise.

Of course word meanings only come from collective use. If the vast majority of people believe a word means something, well, that's what it means. And many of the scholars felt that there is strong evidence that the word "mankind" has been eclipsed by the word "humanity." Kroch showed me a quick chart he'd made, tracking the popularity of the words "mankind" and "humanity" in Google's massive text corpus.

Think twice before using "mankind" to mean "all humanity," say scholars

Said Kroch:

It shows that the use of "mankind," relative to the use of "humanity," has been declining since the beginning of the 19th century but that it's only since 1980 that "humanity" has been more frequent than "mankind." This trend might mean that "mankind" is on its way out as an autohyponym but it's dangerous to project linguistic trends like this into the future.

The OED's Durkin agreed with Kroch's assessment, as well as his caution about being too quick to declare mankind dead:

Most corpora suggest that humanity is more common than mankind in recent English usage, and that mankind is coming to be used less frequently than it previously was, but that mankind remains not particularly rare. The trends in the use of these two words would be well worth watching over the coming years. It may well be the case that a more decisive shift away from using mankind could be in progress, but this would need some careful corpus-based study to confirm.

You can see this shift happening even in popular culture. Consider the famous opening lines of the Star Trek TV show. In the 1960s, when the original show aired, the starship Enterprise was on a mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before." By the late 1980s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, this mission was "to boldly go where no one has gone before." This change was not a nod to political correctness, as Kroch's chart makes clear. It was simply a reflection of how quickly the use of "man" and "mankind" were changing throughout the English language.

But even if most people are no longer using "mankind" to mean "all humans," shouldn't we be true to the origins of the term? Doesn't mankind mean "all humans" because that's what it meant historically? Said Wilton:

Using etymology to govern usage is known as the "etymological fallacy." Usage is governed by, you guessed it, use, not the origin of the word. The origin, of course, influences how a word is used in that it provides the starting point, but meanings shift over time, and lexicographers come up with their definitions by surveying how people actually use the words, not by studying the etymology. In other words, it is unreasonable to determine today's usage based on how the language was used a thousand years ago. If it were reasonable, we'd still be using "silly" to mean "blessed, fortunate" and "awful" to mean "inspiring wonder.". . . If people today perceive it as sexist, it is sexist, regardless of how it was used in ages past.

Words are what they mean right now, and over the past forty years "humanity" has become more acceptable than "mankind" if you want to refer to all human beings, both male and female.

Or, as Pareles put it succinctly, "In my opinion, 'humanity' and 'humankind' are the appropriate words in contemporary English."