Saturday, December 26, 1998
DO most people think of the word man as embracing all the members of the human race? In the Schneider-Hacker study at Drake University in 1972, students were asked to find pictures to illustrate titles of chapters in a sociology book. One set of students were given titles such as Urban Man. They brought back pictures that focused on males. Another set were given titles such as Urban Life and they turned in pictures of men, women and children. The word man had caused students to visualise males.
This visualisation has led to attention being focused today, on the replacement of "male" words with a generic meaning by neutral items chairman becoming chairperson and salesman becoming sales assistant. There is continuing debate between extremists and moderates as to how far such revisions should go. Or when is a woman a man and when is she not a man? We may call her a craftsman but would anyone think of her as a working man? She may be the victim of manslaughter but is she the typical person we visualise when we say "the man in the street" ? If she is not a man on board, how can she be a man overboard?
In fact, the man in the word human has nothing to do with the English word man. Human is from Latin humanus, originally meaning earthling from humus, earth. And the man in words like manager and mandate comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand. Likewise, history is not his story but comes from the Greek historia, meaning inquiry, narrative.
Jokes apart, there have been changes in social attitudes that have had linguistic effects. A clear illustration is the introduction of Ms as a neutral alternative to Miss or Mrs. There are many such changes in usage, and time will determine their longevity. Meanwhile, in everyday language, it is advisable to be judicious, not extremist or ridiculous. As Elsa Goss, in Philadelphia Inquirer, writes, "No one seriously suggests that the word person be substituted for man or woman in every instance. Its unlikely that youll ever get stung by a Portuguese-person-of-war. Youll never land on the Isle of Person. Youll never tell the time with your grandperson clock".
The word khat in Hindi has been taken from Arabic. In Arabic, khat refers to line, moustache, beard, kings order, a mark and a letter. For reasons unknown, Hindi sticks to just one meaning, letter, for khat.
feature was published on September 19, 1998
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