MAN: “1. An adult human male; 2. A human being of either
sex; a person.”
WOMAN: “An adult human female”
– Oxford English
Lexicide’s mailbox is often stuffed with myths, mishearings,
and misapprehensions. One of the most common misunderstandings we get involves
the origins and usage of man and woman.
First things first: woman
does not mean “from man (a male person).” That folk etymology comes from
And Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (King James Version)
In Hebrew, the words for woman and man (אִשָּׁה ishah and אִיש ish) might carry this relationship,
although there is considerable debate about that. In English, however, the
origins of the words man and woman are clearly recorded. Woman comes from Old English wifmann, meaning “female person”, and man comes from Old English mann, meaning… “person.”
If you’re wondering why Old English was so sexist as to use
the same word for “human” and “male”, well, it wasn’t. The male counterpart to
a wifmann was a wermann, wer* being a
cognate of the Latin vir, meaning
strength or power (as in a virile triumvirate).
Wif gave us the obvious “wife” and meant…
Okay, so maybe Old English had a male-centric bent. I had
heard once that wif was related to weave (women presumably doing much
of the warping and woofing), but current scholarship no longer favors that
connection. Women were meant to be
wives and wermen were meant to have
power. Hey, no one said pre-Enlightenment Anglophones were enlightened.
For modern English writers, the question arises: is it okay
to use man as a stand-in for all
people? The situation is complicated by our rich treasury of man quotations:
For man also knoweth not his time… (Ecclesiastes 9:12, KJV)
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… (John Donne)
Man is the cruelest animal. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
I could go on. Proponents of gender-neutral language would urge us to use
person, humanity or humankind in place of man, and I certainly grant that when it
works, go for it. But in other instances, might sometimes man be the right word?
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in 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? (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)
Setting aside the fact we don’t
mess with Shakespeare’s words, would this monologue be improved if it were “What
a piece of work is humanity”?
What about Neil Armstrong’s famous utterance? Would it have had the same
power if he’d said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind”?
Those are good questions. But most of us are not Shakespeare, Donne, or Armstrong. For that matter, most of us won’t ever address the human condition in a brochure or web page. If we do, we have the option to craft phrases which are inclusive and poetic at the same time – at least until the client changes them.
– Otto E. Mezzo
*Wer survives today
in only one modern English word: werewolf
Back in October, I asked what one called residents of Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Atlantic City, etc. This is because Reader Eddie suggested they should be Citizens, as in Oklahoma Citizens, and so on. As is typical of my readership, I got a lot of smart-alecky responses to my serious inquiry (“Okies, Mormons, vagrants”) but no sober, informed data.
Rummaging through the list, you’ll find someone from Carson City is a Carsonite (since the city was founded on silver mines, I find the mineral-oriented “ite” suffix appropriate). A Kansas City resident is a Kansas Citian (blech). Oklahoma City is home to Oklahoma Cityans (double blech), and SLC supports its population of Salt Lakers. Atlantic City is not relevant enough to be on this list, apparently.
A couple of interesting demonyms show their colors here. I did not know people from Buenos Aires are Porteños. Ho Chi Minh City dwellers still call themselves Saigoners or Saigonese, and if you hail from Mexico City, you are thankfully not a Mexico Cityan, but a Capitalino.
And sorry, Eddie. The uniform demonym for ville (Nashville, Louisville, even Seville) is villian, not villain.
Rétrospectif is directly equivalent
to the English retrospective (“looking
back”), so that etymology makes sense. I wondered, however, if rétrograde carries the same negative color as its English counterpart.
Here’s where I consulted with French teacher Erin, who in turn contacted one of
her French amis. She replied: “C’est négatif et obscurantiste.”
There aren’t many words we don’t know at Lexicide, but obscurantist (in English) definitely drove us to the dictionary. (Obscurantism is “the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known,” according to Oxford.) So oui, rétrograde is just as much of an insult in the francosphere as it is the anglosphere.
Reader Andy also commented
on retrograde and retro:
It’s funny how “retro” has become a word unto itself. It’s not merely a descriptive prefix, or an abbreviation for “retrograde,” but it seems to specifically refer to style or design, and it carries a positive (or at least nostalgic) connotation.
It’s also oddly specific. Nobody would refer to Conestoga wagons or Gregorian chant as “retro,” though they come from earlier times. It seems to me that “retro” refers to the zeitgeist of Americana in the 1950s through perhaps the 1980s, though I expect this will expand as the population ages. “Retro” needs to have occurred within living memory and needs to have been part of a pop-culture movement that has definitely ended, AND has since been re-imagined or mythologized.
Designed to commemorate Mossberg’s 100th anniversary in 2019, the Retrograde Series features the two most iconic police and military pump-action shotguns, built to today’s standards, but with the retro look and feel of a walnut stock and matching corncob fore-end.
So… Mossberg decided to market these shotguns as “Retrograde” as opposed to “vintage”, “historic”, or simply “retro”, a descriptor they use in this press release.
Why is this a problem? Because unlike the above terms, retrograde carries negative connotations – just like opinionated, simplistic, stagnant, and reactionary. Yet people (including firearms marketers) seem to be oblivious to this distinction and use these words in neutral or (in this case) positive contexts.
[At this point, the THUNDER of HORSES – dozens of them, a veritable horde! – interrupts Otto in mid-complaint. A COOPER in a MAGA hat pushes his way to the front.]
COOPER Come down off your high horse, Otto! Retrograde just means what it sounds like – “something from the past!” Like hand-crafted oak hogsheads and Justin Timberlake! Ain’t nothing wrong with that!
[OTTO, unfazed, Googles retrograde and displays the results:]
Then there’s Trump’s new pick for attorney general, William P. Barr. Aside from Sessions and Otis, it would be hard to find a more retrograde, anti-reform candidate to head up the Justice Department.
WHALER Slander most foul! So “conservative” is the same as “backward” and “unenlightened”? I should expect as much from The Washington Post and Salon.
PHONE BOOK AD COPYWRITER Excuse me, Otto, but you’re wrong. Retro is the cat’s pajamas, pops! So why not retrograde?
OTTO Do I really have to answer that?
Hey! Why am I talking in Academy screenwriting format? Why is it spaced with tab stops and set in Courier?
WILLIAM FAULKNER Because now you, too, are the very embodiment, the very spirit, the essence of retrograde, whose putrid, mortifying calumny clung to the words – those nouns, those adjectives, those interjections – BANG! – you claim to cherish but instead bleed of all joy. Like me, as I lay dying.
Right or wrong, retrograde carries negative connotations,so instead use traditional, historic, antique, vintage, throwback, or retro.
I didn’t expect to write five posts on demonyms, but here we must brake the trolley, this time outside the Anglosphere. My aside on growing up Chinese American (as opposed to, say, Chinish or Chinesque American) took me back to the days of Chinese school, those glorious Sunday afternoons spent indoors practicing calligraphy and vocabulary instead of playing kickball or jumping bikes off curbs. In Chinese, we learned, the United States was mei guo (美国), literally “the beautiful country.” Americans are mei guo ren, or “beautiful country people.” I don’t know which Chinese came up with that, but as an American, I am flattered.
Mei Guo written in traditional Chinese script. This is the way I learned to write it.
Also as an American, I’m conflicted, as there are two continents called America, so technically Chileans and El Salvadorans are also American. No other country seems to have the awkward co-opting of an entire continent, much less two. Well, there is Australia, of course, but the country and the continent are synonymous. For the one other nation that takes the name of its continent, South African rolls easily off the tongue in a way that United States of American does not. But non-Americans tell me there’s no cause for angst. Spanish speaking Latin Americans describe residents of the United States as estadounidense. And everyone else in the world just calls us Americans without a second thought. My sister reported that her German freunden used the informal Ami.
Too bad we and the rest of the world don’t pay Deutschlanders the same consideration. No other country’s name (in my limited store of knowledge) is mangled overseas more than Deutschland. The French, Spanish, and Arabs call the country after the Alamanni tribe. The Finns call it Saksa after the Saxons. And the majority of the world, from Anglophones to Hindi speakers to Somalians, derive their designator from the Latin name for the region: Germania. (I have never read that Germans are put off by this, but they should be by the Lakota Sioux, whose word for Germany translates to “bad speaker land.”) Only the Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, and Icelanders — interestingly, all linguistic neighbors to Germany — choose to honor the natives’ choice of country name with their own versions of Deutschland.
Wait, there’s one more people who get it right, or try to — the Chinese. Their name for Germany is de guo (德国), which literally translates to “Deutsch country,” but sounds like “land of virtue.” Ausgezeichnet!
I always wondered why people and things from China and Japan are Chinese and Japanese, and not, say, Chinan and Japanian. As someone with Chinese ancestry, the word in English always had an exotic ring – a foreign ring. Growing up, none of my contemporaries in Virginia were an -ese. They were French, British, Irish, German, Swedish, Italian, Mexican, or African. Chinese and Japanese stood out, and when you’re a kid, that’s bad.
The suffix -ese still has an alien ring to my ears, which may be why the writers of Star Trek chose Klingonese as the demonym as opposed to Klingonian or Klingonite. Even Portuguese has an otherworldly air, even though it’s a kissing cousin to Spanish. Certainly Togolese andCongolese, which follow no orthographic logic in their formation, describe to me dense, inscrutable people.
Thinking of demonyms for people from China brings up a suffix I didn’t cover last time: –man. Chinaman once carried the same neutral color as Englishman or Frenchman, only to gain its offensive tone the more it was spat instead of spoken. As you can see, what’s interesting about Chinaman is that it adds the -man suffix to an unmodified place name instead of the descriptor demonym. Chineseman would be more consistent. Of course, this is all before we get to the possible controversies of using “man” to describe both men and women. So a man from Man (the Isle) is a Manxman. But so is a woman from Man.
The post includes my favorite, Liverpudlian. I frequently add a fake -pudlian suffix to identify people from other cities.
I have lived in Greensboro for a couple of years and still have no idea what the proper demonym for city residents is. So I call them Greensburgers. I also like to use -villain (not -villian) for residents of -villes.
As we discussed last month, many demonyms derive from ancient place names. The pool in Liverpool is from the Old English for pool or (cognate coming!) puddle. Another example gets folks scratching their heads is Haligonian. Not so dense when you realize Halifax is derived from halig faex, Latin for “holy hair.” Only, it turns out that’s a folk etymology. But the demonym stuck.
As I responded to Eddie, “-burgers” is etymologically appropriate for -boro, -borough, -burg, and -burgh demonyms, since they all mean “city” and a burger is a “resident of a city.” Villain, interestingly, is also derived from a word for “city” (French ville), but its actual meaning is “someone from the sticks,” or more accurately, a villanus (farmhand) who worked on a villa.* I don’t know who decided to equate hearty country yokels with villainy, but hey – I don’t make the rules.
For places with City in the name (Elizabeth City, NC; Ocean City, MD, etc.), Citizen has a much nicer ring than Citian, in my opinion.
That brings up a good question: what do you call someone from Oklahoma City? If Eddie had his way, they would be Oklahoma Citizens. But seriously, what are they called?
No truer words have ever been spoken. While Lexicide has explored the far reaches of English language word usage, we started off decrying lazy, jargony, incorrect business writing. This article sums up 150 of the most common clichés in the workplace. We’ve covered awesome, bleeding edge, epic, evangelist, (most) unique, incentivize,leverage, utilize, and out of pocket. But what made me laugh in this piece was how many of these hoary expressions we use at my workplace. Not a meeting goes by without a deepdive and a granulardrill down to mission critical action items at the end of the day.