Mankind vs. Humankind

Recently there was a student in the news because she was docked a point for using the word “mankind” instead of the word “humankind”.  This happened on an English paper at Northern Arizona University.  I can remember being at TCU and being encouraged to use what is considered by some to be more gender neutral words such as humankind instead of mankind.  If you have never had to have this conversation before, then you are a lucky person.

I want to start out by saying that I understand why certain people want others to use words such as humankind over mankind.  I understand that word choice is very important when trying to get thoughts across to people.  I understand that to effectively get across an idea you would use different word choice depending on your audience.  I speak and lecture publicly quite often, so I understand the importance of using effective terminology.

However, considering the fact that the student was writing a college level paper with an audience of a college English professor, the use of the word mankind should have been perfectly appropriate barring any sexual bias from the professor.  Clearly though, the professor is sexually biased.  A college English professor should be using their knowledge to teach people about the proper meaning of words, not to exaggerate and proliferate an incorrect use of the word.  A college English professor should be above the hype, not give into the hype.

By definition, the word “mankind” refers to all humans, both male and female.  If anyone refuses to acknowledge this, then they are truth deniers.  The only people who would have a problem with this word are people who are insecure with gender issues or who are ignorant of the correct definition of the word.  People who are secure with gender issues and are knowledgeable of the definition of the word do not struggle with this word.  So amusingly it is the people who fight to remove the use of mankind, those who are trying to be more gender sensitive, they are the ones who struggle with gender issues.

I am sure there are some people out there who would say to me, “Curtis, you just do not know the heart of the issue because you cannot relate to being a woman and having to label yourself under mankind.”  To that I reply with, “I can absolutely relate to having to label myself under a term that seems to have a gender discrepancy.”  How?  See below.

I am a Christian.  Do you know what one of the most common labels for Christians is?  The bride of Christ.  That is right, me, as a man, have to call myself the bride of Christ.  Do you see how emasculating that could be if I decided to get all tied up in that term?  Do you see how I could start a movement to relabel the traditional term so that men would not feel as feminized?

So why do I not get tied up in that term?  Because I understand the meaning of the word.  I understand that the word is not trying to emasculate anyone.  I understand that the word is meant to show the loving relationship that God has for His children.  (Ah, being called a child as a grown adult, yet another word I could get up in arms about … .)  I rise above the hype and land on truth.

There is nothing wrong with the phrase the bride of Christ to describe male believers in Christ.  The reason that there is nothing wrong with it is because it is not trying to project a gender identification onto anyone.  The same is true for the word mankind.  The word is not meant to project any gender identification.

So to those English professors who are insisting that mankind not be used to describe a group of people, I say stop betraying your profession.  Instead of exaggerating and proliferating the false concept that “mankind” is a sexist word, you ought to be rightly instructing your students that “mankind” is gender neutral.

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4 comments

  1. I think, in this instance, the fault was in using an outdated language form. One could, in a similar way argue that “negro” was the historical classification for those of African descent and it doesn’t have any racist implications to use it in a scholarly way; but today we have an alternative that ought to be used in order to be respectful.
    I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with fundamentalist Christian mindset. They say that because Adam, which means “man”, was used generically as the title for the human race, men have authority over women. They say that because Adam is the representation for the human race, and not Eve, then men have authority over women. Men are always first when speaking of men and women, unless one is saying “ladies and gentlemen.” Using “mankind” tends to create a default of “males” and otherizes “females”. Humankind is designed to be inclusive to put women and men on level ground.
    After all, idioms like; “no man is an island” could be better understood as “no one is an island”. But English grammar betrays us in that we have a tendency to refer to people and things as either masculine or feminine, while we do have “it”; it’s clunky and awkward to use. It’s only recently been permitted to use “they” as a singular third person gender-neutral: “If anyone has questions, they should ask them.” (as opposed to: “If anyone has questions, he or she should ask them.”
    Think of it as a toddler growing, learning the world around him anew. Of course there will be stumbling, but not everything old is right.

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    • Jamie,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply.

      I would agree with you that some people may use the term in a belittling way. However, it is they who are in the wrong, not the person who uses the term correctly.

      I would also not say that “mankind” is an outdated word. It is still used quite regularly. Also, that was not the professor’s reason for docking the student. The professor’s reason was because she thought the word to be sexist.

      If ignorance did not reign, negro would be an acceptable word to use when describing blacks. Many of the African-American civil rights leaders used the word. It is too bad ignorance has to reign. On a side note, it is amazing that negro would offend some when many blacks use a slightly abbreviated version of the truly offensive n-word to refer to themselves.

      Again, I believe that the only people who struggle with phrases like, “no man is an island”, are people who are insecure in gender issues. If people were to be educated enough and understand the intent, then no person would struggle with such phrases. I read articles now-a-days that purposefully insert “her” or “she” as the main pronoun when using a personal pronoun in an example (in fact, I have even done this myself). When I read these articles I do not suddenly feel left out and that the author is trying to speak of females as more dominant. I recognize that this is just a new way that people have decided to use general language.

      I agree that just because it is old that it should be used. However, just because it is old does not make it wrong either. Indeed, just because it is new does not mean it is right. In fact, sometimes the new idea is what is truly wrong, and the new idea that mankind is not gender neutral is factually wrong.

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  2. No, I’m sorry, you’re just plain wrong and missing the point. While the word “mankind” includes women and children, it clearly defines humanity as a male endeavor – male led, male controlled, and therefore male identified. The connotation, which was obviously deliberate in the past, remains. You simply can’t get past it because it’s built into the word.

    I doubt you would find “mankind” used in legitimate scholarly writings for at least the last 20 years. I’m 58, and it was on the list of “don’t use” words when I majored in journalism in the 1970’s at a Midwestern state university. I would invite you to consider the word “womankind.” What would it mean to you? How would it be commonly interpreted? At the least, it defines humanity as a female endeavor – female led, female controlled, and therefore female identified. More likely, most people would read it as referring to all women and only women.

    The resistance to “humankind” makes no sense if, as claimed, those who use “mankind” have no sexist intent or gender bias. The very fact such people insist on “mankind” shows a vested interest in a gendered term. If you really didn’t care, you’d have no problem with “humankind.” Therefore, it’s obvious you and others insisting on this outdated word do care and prefer its inherent gender bias.

    Your analogy to “bride of Christ” is not valid or relevant. The term is not commonly used and the concept it defines is not commonly held. It is a term of religious art needed and used by only a small number of Roman Catholics to denote a Roman Catholic notion. The fact you offer it as an analogy reflects on the narrowness of your world view, a tendency to universalize your own very small and specific personal experience to everyone else. Likewise, your reference to the occasional use of “herstory” language and how you personally don’t feel slighted by it is irrelevant. The women’s movement is not trying to enslave you, turn you into property and own you, restrict your movements and speech, deny you employment, or take away your life choices. “Herstory” language cannot call up those threats to your autonomy and existence. There is no equivalency in meaning or effect between such language and archaic holdovers like “mankind.”

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    • JD,

      Thank you for taking your time to read my blog and your thoughtful reply. I will try to reply as cogently.

      “While the word “mankind” includes women and children, it clearly defines humanity as a male endeavor – male led, male controlled, and therefore male identified. The connotation, which was obviously deliberate in the past, remains.”
      The old English word “man” originally meant any person of the human race. So actually you are factually mistaken. If you do not believe me, wikipedia “man as a word”. It was not deliberate. People may have eventually taken it to propel the male gender, but it was not originally meant to do that. It only becomes a problem when people insists it is a problem.

      “I doubt you would find “mankind” used in legitimate scholarly writings for at least the last 20 years. I’m 58, and it was on the list of “don’t use” words when I majored in journalism in the 1970’s at a Midwestern state university.”
      Certainly most (not all) scholarly writings will use the more politically correct term. But that is not because it is actually more correct. To my point in the blog, it is a failure of proper teaching that led to “mankind” being interpreted as male dominant. That is simply the truth. It originally was meant to mean both genders.

      “I would invite you to consider the word “womankind.” What would it mean to you? How would it be commonly interpreted?”
      I would have no problem with it at all if I knew it was originally meant to refer to both genders. Hence me having no problem with referring to myself as the bride of Christ.

      “If you really didn’t care, you’d have no problem with “humankind.” Therefore, it’s obvious you and others insisting on this outdated word do care and prefer its inherent gender bias.”
      There is a lot of very unhealthy assumption in your statement. First, I never showed resistance to the word “humankind”. Indeed, I use the word when I deem it necessary. I encourage you to re-read my blog without assuming I resist the word humankind. What I stated is that an English professor ought to know better that the word “mankind” is not actually sexist. Yes, some people may use it that way, but as I said in my blog, that is giving into the hype, not rising above it. English teachers ought to try to rescue the word for its original intent, not to lazily cast it away as something it is not.

      “Your analogy to “bride of Christ” is not valid or relevant. The term is not commonly used and the concept it defines is not commonly held. It is a term of religious art needed and used by only a small number of Roman Catholics to denote a Roman Catholic notion.”
      This is not only a Roman Catholic term. This term is found throughout all Christianity. It is a term taken from concepts in Scripture. I am not Roman Catholic. It is used extremely commonly among Christians. That fact that you seemingly ignorantly belittle my very valid point only shows that you are not willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

      “Likewise, your reference to the occasional use of “herstory” language and how you personally don’t feel slighted by it is irrelevant.”
      I honestly do not know what you are talking about here. I never referenced whatever you say I referenced. Just trying to be fair here.

      The rest of your last paragraph shows how you were not coming at this blog in an intellectual manner, but in an emotional one. I honestly did not mean to offend you. I was giving an intellectual reply. I have no problem with gender-neutral language when its goal is to try to make as many people as possible feel comfortable. However, I do have a problem with gender-neutral insistence when it is based in ignorance. It is simply incorrect to insist that “mankind” is a sexist word. It was not sexist to the woman who wrote the paper. The woman who wrote the paper knew the historical and linguistic fact that “mankind” was originally meant to refer to all people.

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