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Does the Term 'Man' Include All Human Beings? -- OR -- Are Women Men?
by Carolyn Ray

Date: Oct 97
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

In an episode of the television sitcom "Frasier," Frasier's ex-wife Lilith exclaims in a moment of passion, "You're the only man I ever loved!" Frasier responds, "So are you!"

Why is this funny? It is funny because it is inappropriate to refer to a woman as a 'man'. Why is it ironic? Lilith's character is meant to be at times sexless, at times "masculine." Frasier's avowel is ironic because what is actually a slip of th e tongue takes on a certain pronounced meaning due to the fact that it is a masculine woman to whom he is saying it.

It is often claimed that the word 'man' encompasses both sexes and that everyone knows this and is used to it. School children allegedly take it in stride, adding it to their lists of English oddities without batting an eye. If the slower children do n't learn it in grade school, they certainly pick it up as they grow up. "All men are created equal" says the Declaration of Independence. "God made man in His own image," says the Bible. Allegedly, it is obvious to anyone reading these words that the A postles and the Founding Fathers meant to refer to all human beings. But is it?

I will leave this question for another essay (coming soon). I mention it here only to motivate the problem. My view on this question, in brief, is that this convention is a modern invention (hence the scare-quotes around "traditionlists" herei n), contrived and strained and in the end not very useful at all. But enough of that for now.

My purpose in the present essay is to discuss one of the many obstacles which must be overcome in order to advocate the use of the word 'man' as a generic term which refers to both male and female persons. I am against all uses of words with male conno tations in contexts calling for gender neutral terms, but I shall only discuss one of them here. Moreover, I think that there are psychological and sociological difficulties which arise from insistance on such usage, but these too will be discussed in sep arate essays (coming soon). I welcome comments and objections.

I know that many will find my motives suspect. To put their minds at ease, let me announced that I like male persons. I would not even say I am a feminist. I do not think we should replace the absurd usage of male-gender terms with an equally a bsurd usage of female-gender terms. I believe that we should all improve our writing skills either by eliminating constructions which seem to demand a gender-neutral term which clearly does not exist, or by using terms which are conceptually accurate.

My contention in the present essay is simply that the use of the term 'man' as a generic term subsuming all persons is conceptually inaccurate.

There are certain tests we can use to determine whether one concept is broader than another one and subsumes all of the concretes which fall under the narrower one. There is a relationship, in English, between concept hierarchies and the 'is' of predic ation. To put it more plainly, if an object falls under a concept, I must be able to use the construction

________ is a ________


P is a Z.

If everything I know about the language and about reality forbid me to use this construction with the word 'man,' the claim that 'man' is a broader concept which subsumes all individual human beings is a spurious one. In other words, if "traditionalists" thought clearly about what words mean to them and to every other Eng lish-speaker, they could not insist that this conceptual relationship is not only accurate but preferable to any suggested alternatives.

Consider first a test of integration. For one concept X to be broader than another concept Y, if I can say that P is a Y, I must also be able to say that P is an X. For example, suppose I claim that the concept HORSE is broader than the concept ZEBRA. If I can say that Mhamba is a zebra, I should be able to say that Mhamba is a horse.

Now consider a test of differentiation. If all X's are Z's and all Y's are Z's, but no X is a Y, still I ought to be able to say that X is a Z but X is not a Y. For example, if all zebras are horses and all Shetland ponies are horses, but no zebra is a Shetland pony, I should still be able to say that Mhamba is a horse but not a Shetland Pony.

The Argument from Integration

First, let us test whether MAN is a broader concept subsuming both MAN and WOMAN.

Take a non-controversial example. If I want to claim that the concept TOOL is a broader one which subsumes the referents of the concept HAMMER, I have to be able to say, grammatically and coherently

Every hammer is a tool.

So far, so good. Any English speaker would readily say that if I am holding a hammer, then I am holding a tool. Even though I have more specific information--I know it to be a hammer--I need not use that more specific term. Even though it might be help ful to use the more specific term in certain contexts--"Do you have my tools?" "No, I only have your hammer; Diana has the rest of your tools."--I would not be wrong to say "I have one of your tools."

Now let us take an example from our every day affairs. The word 'spouse' is a generic term used to denote either a husband or a wife. I can say at a party, "Have your seen my spouse?" and people would assume that I was looking for my husband. I could a lso be more specific and say, "Have you seen my husband?" But either form is correct. Any English speaker would readily assent that if I am looking for my husband, then I am looking for my spouse. However, if I said, "Have you seen my wife?" people who kn ow me would be surprised to hear that I had changed my sexual orientation since the last time they had seen me. I cannot refer to my husband in this way, even though both wives and husbands are kinds of spouses. Symmetrically, a man cannot refer to his wi fe as "my husband."

But with the word 'man', a problem suddenly arises. The receptionist at my gynecologist's office might very well say, "Doctor, this person is here to have her PAP smear." He would not be speaking incorrectly. I am in fact a person. He could , but need not, say, "Doctor, this woman is here for her PAP smear." The fact that I am a woman need not be stated, even though the receptionist knows my sex. But what if he said,

Doctor, this man is here for her PAP smear.

This would be incorrect. I am not a man. No English-speaker would let another get away with such a mistake. The doctor in our example would rightly be embarrassed on behalf of her receptionist; she might try to assuage my annoyance by making a joke of it. Someone who did not know the receptionist might even conclude that he was a foreigner who had not got his gender words straight yet. Any heterosexual, non-transgendered English-speaking patient so introduced would be offended by the suggestion she was in fact a male person, which is what the word 'man' means.

If it were true that MAN were the generic concept under which all human beings fall, and the concepts WOMAN and MAN were narrower concepts the referents of which were differentiated along the dimension of sex, then I would be able to say of any male pe rson named 'Tom,' "Tom is a man." I would be able to say of any female person named 'Carolyn,' "Carolyn is a man."

But this is not how the average person understands the word 'man'. In fact, it is not the way the non-average "traditionalist" understands the word 'man.' "Traditionalists" balk at sentences such as 'Carolyn is a man,' arguing that because we know th e sex of Carolyn we must make the sentence reflect it or risk sounding absurd.

This contradicts the claim that 'man' is a broader generic term which subsumes the concept 'woman.' Recall the hammer example. If I said, "Hand me that tool!" it would be silly to respond, " TOOL!? You're not making any sense. Can't you see tha t this is a hammer?"

But now let us say that I am sitting alone in the doctor's office, and the doctor comes out and commands, "Nurse! Bring that man into the examining room!" Would any "traditionalist" agree with this usage?

If the word 'man' is commonly understood to be a generic term which includes both female and male humans, then just as I can say,

This hammer is one of the most important tools I own.

I should be able to say

Cindi Crawford is one of the most beautiful men alive.

Just as I can say,

See that man? He's one of the men on John's team.

I should also be able to say,

See that woman? She is one of the men on John's team.

By the same token, I should be able to say,

This man is here for her abortion.

Or, if you prefer,

This man is here for his abortion.

But I cannot properly say the second sentence in the above pairs because they are wrong. They are wrong because you do not use the term 'man' or 'men' generically. If you did, these sentences would not sound ridiculous to you. The fact t hat more specific knowledge is available is irrelevant, as we saw in the examples using hammers and spouses. I am always correct, even if less informative, to use the broader term rather than the more specific. The term 'man' is not broader than the term 'woman,' not as far as any English-speaker is concerned. For this reason, I cannot properly, grammatically, make the above statements.

A "traditionalist" might at this point simply bite the bullet and claim that these sentences are correct; we would just never use them because they might lead to confusion--the gynecologist, for example, might pull the patient's boyfriend into the examining room and attempt a PAP smear on him. If this is the response, then the question arises, "What is the standard by which these sentences are judged correct, if not by whether they are clearly understood by most English speakers?"

The Argument from Differentiation

Second, if all X's are Z's and all Y's are Z's, and no X is a Y, still I ought to be able to say that any X is a Z but not a Y.

For example, all hammers are tools. All screwdrivers are tools. No screwdriver is a hammer. A hammer is a tool but it is not a screwdriver.

However, look at what happens when I try to use this standard form using the words 'man' and 'woman'. I can say

Cindy Crawford is a person but not a man.

But I cannot say

Cindy Crawford is a man but not a man.

What happened? Doesn't language reflect concept hierarchies? Well, yes it does. We can comfortably say that Cindy Crawford is a person but not a man; PERSON is a wider concept subsuming the concept WOMAN, and Crawford is a woman. The alleged concept hierarchy which has the concept MAN subsuming the concept WOMAN is contradictory and paradoxical, and cannot be argued for objectively.

Might we all just be mistaken?

Is it possible that these examples sound funny to all of us just because we are all wrong? Might the term 'man' in fact include all human beings, even though no one would admit that Cindy Crawford is a beautiful man?

I contend that this is not possible. Words do not have intrinsic meaning, so we cannot all be mistaken; it is not even possible that most of us are wrong. Human beings make up words, and when they come into wide usage, the meanings that most pe ople think they have are the meanings that they have. People think that "Cindy Crawford is a beautiful man" is a ridiculous statement because to them the word 'man' means 'male person.'

Moreover, to most people, the word 'woman' means 'female person,' not 'female man' or 'man equipped with female genitals.' Lexicographers are people, too. If anyone can find a dictionary, new or ancient, which defines 'woman' using 'man' as the genus, please write to me immediately, as I will consider this big news, and I may have to retract what I am saying. You will, on the other hand, find dictionaries which use the genus 'h uman being' or 'person' and which point out that the appositional is 'man.'

The Argument from Cows

A favored counterexample to my argument concerns our apparent comfort with the word 'cow.' This word, it is pointed out, refers to female bovines in one context, and to all bovines in another. As the story goes, average people have no difficulty with the fluidity of the word 'cow,' and never complain that they are confused. This is supposedly a clear example of the fact that our language is infused with ambiguous words which denote broader concepts in some contexts, narrower ones in others. Therefo re, we have no reason to accept the above arguments concerning 'man' as the least bit interesting. The sentences I have listed sound funny, but that is just because they are uncommon. Or so the story goes.

On the contrary, I contend that they are not common because no one thinks they constitute proper English. The cow example and others like it are quite different from the current concern. People who are not in animal husbandry know very little about bo vines, and they do not care. Most people do not actually know that the generic term is 'bovine.' Most people do not even know what the word 'bovine' means. It is this lack of knowledge which accounts for the lack of difficulty. Do I care whether this s teak is from a cow or from a bull? No, I do not. By contrast, almost every English speaker (excluding some very small children) knows what 'human being' means, at least by ostension, and they care very deeply indeed whether a given person is male or fema le. And even more English speakers (including most of those very small children) know that the word 'man' refers to male persons (or daddy and grampa), and the word 'woman' refers to female persons (or mommy and gramma). The meanings and referents of these words are extremely intimate and important to all English speakers.

The fact that most people will respond to corrections like "That's not a cow; it's a bull" with a wave of the hand and a "You know what I mean!" does not indicate that we all have facility with the term 'cow.' It indicates that most people live in the city. City children learn what bovines are by their basic shape, which is relatively unimportant in their lives. But a country child knows that there is a big difference between the statement, "There's a cow behind you" and "There's a bull behind you." One is inconsequential; the other heralds serious injury or death.

The real difference between the words 'man' and 'cow' is this: In the case of cows, only certain people with special circumstances care whether the word 'cow' is being used incorrectly. Most people do not; nonetheless, the mere fact that they d o not care that they are wrong does not mean that they are right. Thus, as the "traditionalists" attempt to make the argument, the argument from cows is a false analogy.

Incidentally, does Christina Sanchez, famous Spanish bullfighter, fight with cows ?

Actually, she used to, before her father accepted her unfeminine choice of sport. But in the ring, no one fights a cow! So in fact there is an analogy between the word 'cow' and the word 'man,' but it works against the "traditionalists," rather than in their favor.


Because of the way that the word 'man' is used, claiming that that word in some context can have a gender neutral meaning is indefensible on linguistic and conceptual grounds. It is confusing at best, a strained and contrived linguistic device which makes a mockery of any alleged connection between language and thought. In a context in which it were absolutely crystal clear to a large number of English-speakers, I would agree that in the odd and limited context it is worth using. But it is quite a c hallenge to come up with such a context--as I will show in another essay.

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