If there’s one thing I’ve learned getting to know university professors, it’s that pride is alive and well in academia, despite many claims to the contrary. I always expected such persons to be paragons of fairness and objectivity, but it turns out that they, too, harbour secret prejudices of their own—and sexism is no exception to this rule. I did, however, have the opportunity to turn the tables on one such individual, who thought he knew what he was talking about, but didn’t. Knowing at the outset that his facts were wrong, I graciously burdened myself with the task of correcting him on his assumptions on a topic which often goes unexamined—sexism in language.
(By the way, I must apologise to Nobel Prize-winning economist Leonid Hurwicz for using a photograph of him at the beginning of this article. I’m sure he isn’t a sexist old fogey; it’s just that he really looks like one! But he’s dead now anyway.)
Now, my friend is no dolt—he’s a professor of psychology at an eminent Canadian university—but he’s also an eccentric. He hails from Romania, loves opera and English literature, and pines for the days of the old British Empire, which, in relative terms, imposed a much gentler form of imperialism on its colonial subjects, or so he would say. “The British had an ideal behind their imperial mission–-to teach and to elevate benighted peoples”, is something he would say, “and they carried out this mission much more humanely than the Dutch, French, Spanish, or other European colonial powers.” Anyway, he sounds rather like Dracula and smokes like a chimney. And he’s gay. So he’s like a gay, chain-smoking Dracula. He comes across as sophisticated and quaintly nostalgic, but he has some rather ugly opinions—for they are certainly not facts—about feminists.
One of these opinions is that feminists don’t know what they’re talking about. You see, my friend once encountered a group of women in his milieu who complained that the word manhole was sexist because it contained the word man, but not woman. But, he argued, feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist, because man derives from the Latin word manus, which means “hand”, not “adult male human being”. So the feminists are just being angry, stupid women, he suggested.
Well, that’s just plain bullshit, as I soon showed him. It is what in diachronic linguistics (historical linguistics) we call ”folk etymology”: derivation of a word from a false, popular, made-up origin. Anyway, what follows is the general sequence of exchanges we made, in which I disprove his argument and prove its irrational, sexist underpinnings. It is not to be taken verbatim; the quotations are actually paraphrases, not direct discourse, but they accurately reflect the logic behind the points made. And to make a distinction between speakers, I will refer to my friend as simply “Dracula”. Now be patient and closely follow the line of argument to see how I arrive at my conclusion.
“These feminists shouldn’t be complaining that the word manhole is sexist”, said Dracula. “It is not, because the man in manhole comes from the Latin word manus, which means ‘hand’, not ‘adult male human being’. It refers to people who labour with the hands.”
“But the feminists aren’t incorrect to call manhole sexist”, said I, “because the man in manhole doesn’t come from manus; it comes from the Old English word man, which does mean ‘adult male human being’ in our present-day usage. So, yes, the feminists do have reason to complain that words like manhole are sexist.”
“Brandon”, cooed Dracula in a thick yet articulate Romanian accent, “if you want to show that the word man doesn’t mean manus, you have to show that the English didn’t borrow man from Latin.”
“But the Romans conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and conquered peoples borrow words from their conquerors. Hence, the Anglo-Saxons must have borrowed the word man from manus, the Latin word for ‘hand’.”
“That is incorrect. The Romans didn’t conquer the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain after Rome left. The Roman conquest of Britain began in 43 under Claudius. The people they conquered were Celtic, not Germanic. After a series of Anglo-Saxon and Irish raids, the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 to concentrate their legions on Rome in response to a massive siege there by the Visigoths, who attacked the city under the leadership of Alaric. It was only then that the Germanics had free rein to settle Britain en masse, and even then they only did so several decades later, beginning in 449, under Hengest and Horsa of the Jutes. This means that the Anglo-Saxons [the Germanic tribes in Britain] couldn’t have borrowed man from a ruling Roman elite. The Romans had left before the Anglo-Saxons could borrow anything from them. So, no, the feminists aren’t wrong about the etymology of man.”
“But, Brandon”, purred Dracula affectionately, “The Celts and the Germanics are the same people with the same language group, so when you say that the Romans conquered the Celts, you say that the Romans conquered the Germanics, too. Thus there was still a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans.”
“That’s just plain wrong”, said I, patiently. “The Celts and Germanics are two totally different peoples with two totally different language groups. Look at any Proto-Indo-European Language Family tree. Italic (from which Latin is derived), Germanic (from which Old English is derived), and Celtic (from which Welsh and Irish are derived) are linguistic sisters. Germanic is no more closely related to Celtic than it is to Latin itself, the language you incorrectly purported as the donor language to the Germanics. They’re all equally distinct. The Celts spoke Celtic languages when the Romans arrived, and the Anglo-Saxons spoke Germanic languages after the Romans left. So, no, there was not a Germanic people borrowing the word man from the conquering Romans, and, yes, the feminists are correct in analyzing man as meaning a type of ’person’, and not ‘hand’.”
To be honest, I was thinking to myself, “Girl, you’ve got your chronology backwards.”
“Besides”, I continued, “words aren’t borrowed just because they come from a conquering culture; they’re borrowed because they represent something special, hence prestigious, about the conquering culture. The English didn’t borrow the word ‘chicken’ or ‘goose’ from the invading French, because chickens and geese were common to the English; poor English people ate fowl, too. But they did borrow the words for pork, beef, and venison from the French [cf. French porc, boeuf, venaison], because these words respresented something special, hence prestigious, about the invading culture. Only the invading French could afford to eat these choice meats. However, ‘man’ was a concept common to both the invading French and the English, just like ‘finger’ or ‘hair’, so the English didn’t bother borrowing this word from the French. So, again, no, man wasn’t borrowed from an invading culture, and the feminists are right about its etymology.”
Here Dracula sat for a moment, truly puzzled, then drew a copy of Roget’s Dictionary [Please, really? At least obtain a fresh copy of the Oxford English Dictionary] from his mammoth, heaving bookshelf, breaking it open on his dining table next to a glass of rosé and a thick stack of fresh cigarettes. Scanning the pages intently between puffs of smoke, he told me he would find out once and for all the etymological root of man, and how it proved that the feminists didn’t know what they were talking about. Ultimately, though, all he found was a derivation which stated that the origin of man was OE, or Old English. Not Latin.
“Drat!” he seemed to be thinking behind his cigarette, his brow furrowed in deep cogitation. Even then he was wrong, and the feminists were right. And so he slowly slouched back in his chair and puffed on his cigarette, still staring at the page in the dictionary, whilst I politely summarized my argument against him. We eventually drifted off into other topics of conversation, but I think we both left with an understanding that his analysis of the feminists he encountered, and perhaps women in general, was wrong. If this one person can be so deliberately remiss about sexism in language, just tally up all the other culprits. I think that what we’re seeing here is a form of academic hubris which seeks comfort inside its own stubborn, old-fashioned shell, but which hurts girls and boys in the real world of today by promulgating snobbish, stupid myths about women.