Relative to some other languages (mostly European ones), English vocabulary isn’t too heavy on gender — for example, unlike Romance languages, there’s no need to make gendered agreements every time you use an adjective. But, it’s not totally free of gendered language: despite the lack of grammatical gender and all that comes with it, a handful of popular English words still indicate gender in a way that some people see as sexist.
The Problem With Gendered Words
Many gendered words pertain to jobs, and include oft-used titles like fireman, policeman, postman, chairman, alongside a few others, like “mankind” and “manmade.” The gendered element should be pretty obvious here: they all feature the word “man”, and this is the case for most gendered words in English, with a few exceptions for professions like actor/actress and steward/stewardess (and this one is pretty rare nowadays, as the term “flight attendant” has become standard).
But does integrating the word “man” make these words inherently sexist? Well, yes. The implicit sexism is fairly obvious in the words here that are used to describe professions: when job titles like “fireman” or “chairman” are the norm, they inherently suggest that these roles are geared towards men — not women or gender non-conforming people.
Of course, there are feminized equivalents, like “firewoman” (rarely used) and “chairwoman”, but these aren’t the best solution. In part, this is because they’re still gendered, so the same problem of inclusivity just crops up in reverse. Plus, they’re difficult to use in a plural form: it’s downright clunky to describe a group of cops as “policemen and policewomen”. You could shorten this and just choose one of “policemen” or “policewomen”, but that would be inaccurate, by excluding one gender completely.
What Should We Replace Gendered Nouns With?
Fortunately, there are solutions here: gender-neutral words like “firefighter”, “police officer”, or “chair” are simple, cover all bases, and also include gender non-conforming people. Best of all, these words aren’t even contentious. Most job titles and descriptions in English are already gender-neutral (doctor, lawyer, artist, engineer), so even though a few people might complain that saying “chair” instead of “chairman” is some kind of feminist social engineering, in reality, it’s just bringing a few outliers into line with the rest of the English language.
Putting aside these professions, there are a few other gendered English words floating around, such as “mankind” and “manmade”. These are also examples of sexist language, for fairly obvious reasons — on its surface, a word like “mankind” appears to conflate human existence with male existence. However, because a term like “mankind” is more abstract, the situation is more ambiguous, and calling these words “sexist” can draw backlash.
A Mixed Response
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau learnt this the hard way. At a town hall meeting in 2018, he corrected a woman in the audience for using the term “mankind”.
“We like to say ‘peoplekind’, not necessarily ‘mankind’, because it’s more inclusive,” he said.
This drew criticism and even some outrage, particularly from conservative commentators, who said Trudeau’s language was “dripping with virtuous self-aggrandizing sanctimony” and “virtue-signalling”. (To be fair, ample criticism came from the other side too — these critics accused Trudeau of “mansplaining” to the woman in the audience, but mostly didn’t seem fazed by the word “peoplekind”)
Trudeau later claimed that the line was a bad joke, and while this might have been an excuse, it does seem like it was a possibility, if you consider the broader context for the remark. In any case, the joke triggered loud responses across the spectrum, setting up a precedent for future gender-neutral debates.
Where Did Words Like “Mankind” Even Originate?
While it’s tough to argue that a word like “fireman” isn’t sexist (because there are obviously firefighters who aren’t men), there are some more coherent arguments for why “mankind” might not be a sexist word.
These arguments are mostly rooted in linguistic history: in the Anglo-Saxon predecessor to modern English, “mann” was a more gender neutral term. That word was an autohyponym — as explained by University of Pennsylvania linguist Anthony Koch, this refers to “a word which can mean both a member of a category and a member of one of its subcategories.”
Autohyponyms are commonly used for animals — for example, “fox” is a hyponym in that it refers to any animals within that species, versus “vixen”, which only refers to female foxes.
“Mankind” also derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “mann-cynn” (although spellings of this may vary). So, the argument goes that because “mann” referred to people more than men as a gender, it was gender-neutral, and so, “mann-cynn” is also gender-neutral. (It’s also worth noting that linguists disagree about whether “mann” was truly gender-neutral, as its historic connotations are not crystal-clear.)
Of course, there’s one big flaw in this reasoning: languages evolve over time, and meanings change. “Mann” (and its English successor, “man”) may have referred to humans-at-large in the past, but in present-day usage, “man” almost exclusively refers to one gender. So, by extension, words constructed out of “man” also inherit some of its gendered connotations.
The Future Of Gendered Language
Trudeau got it wrong by trying to promote the clunky, made-up “peoplekind” — but there are plenty of better synonyms for mankind, like “humanity” or even just “people”.
This isn’t to say that “mankind” is a wildly offensive word, or that it’s some kind of sexist slur on par with a blunt-force insult — despite the ravings of some of Trudeau’s detractors, it’s not a banned word, and it’s not going to get you cancelled. Rather, it’s just a bit dated, and there’s no shortage of smoother, more useful phrases to use.