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Vocabulary mini-rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Vocabulary mini-rant
Okay. Just kind of breezing around some conservasites, I ran across an article about Ruth Bader Ginsberg trying to argue that the Declaration of Independence suggests we should pay more attention to foreign law. I haven't read it, or the commentary on it, and this isn't a political rant, but a brief scan of the article about it smacked me with one of my pet peeves: "humankind."

The article reported that Justice Ginsberg referred to her idea, paraphrasing the DoI, as "respect for the opinions of [human]kind."


I hate this word.

I will argue until the cows come home that there's nothing wrong with "mankind," but that's not the point of this mini-rant. If you are constitutionally unable to refer to yourself as a member of "mankind" because you possess girl bits, then fine. I'm not going to force you to say it. But if you're going to replace it, please don't use that weird, ugly neologism, "Humankind" (which "mankind" is more or less short for anyway, though its cadence is different, and oh yeah, I wasn't going to argue for using "mankind"). "Humankind" is an awkward, arhythmic word that calls attention to itself (and its users' Great Sensitivity, of course) because it doesn't fit naturally into the cadence of the English language.

Now, if it were just an ugly word being used in place of another word because there was no alternative, I'd probably grit my teeth, roll my eyes, and mentally replace it with "mankind" ignore it. I don't object to neologisms in principle. Sometimes, they're needed. But here's the thing: a "human"-based alternative to mankind already exists, fits well into English cadence, and has dignity. It doesn't call attention to itself by its sensitive ugliness. It just serves the purpose of having a word that has no bad old gender connotations and refers to the whole of mankind, one of whose definitions is "Humans considered as a group; the human race." The word is "humanity."

A decent respect for the opinions of humanity.

A great leap forward for humanity.

Humanity's greatest achievement.

A benefit to the whole of humanity.

For G-d's sake, why use a grating, discordant neologism like "humankind" when there's already a word in existence that does the same bleeding thing?


Rant over.
28 comments or Leave a comment
From: tunxeh Date: April 26th, 2005 03:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm still kind of fond of cummings' "manunkind".
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 03:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, that's a neologism I can get behind. Pointed, meaningful, and unique.
From: leeflower Date: April 26th, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
the funny thing about it is that "man" actually does mean human. It always has.

Originally the word for male was "Werman," and the word for female "woman." The idea that 'woman' means 'man with a womb' is total nonsense-- the word came into being well before English became an independant language, and is therefore completely not based on english words.

the 'wer' being dropped was a product of a patriarchal society that treated men as humans and women as something related to men, and so they started using the word "man" instead of "werman" because they felt it was redundant.

I bring this up every time anyone tries to use the terrible lingual abomination that is "Womyn" in my presence. It kicks 'human' out of the word, not 'male.' Same thing with mankind: it already means human-kind. Changing it to 'include' women implies that women aren't included to begin with, which they are.

I wish that the craft of politically-correcting the language would be left to linguists, who can advise as to truly offensive terms (such as racially-derived slurs and swears) while leaving the stupid stuff (like mankind) alone.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 03:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, you know... me, modern feminism, PC language... this is how I end up a Republican. Words like "humankind" drive me there.

And of course that's true. I remember once, in my frustration at "womyn" (and what's with adding a 'y,' as that's the symbol for the male chromosome, anyway?), looking it up and finding in any given dictionary what the etymology was. (And of course, dedicated horror readers know that "Wer" is man... hence the "werewolf," or "man-wolf.")

I'm much more in favor of keeping "mankind" than using "humanity" in its place. The rant is more about... sheesh. If you're going to replace "mankind," why not replace it with an actual, you know, word?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
(And of course, dedicated horror readers know that "Wer" is man... hence the "werewolf," or "man-wolf.")
Of course, it strikes me that the "wer" is specific in that case, and maybe female werewolves should be called "wowolves" or, as I think the original derivation was in the dictionary entry, "wivwolves." ("Wyf" or "wof" or whatever actually also translating as "wife," so basically the "womyn" of the world are rejecting humanity and choosing to identify themselves solely as "wives"... which might make some brains explode, come to think of it.)
From: leeflower Date: April 26th, 2005 04:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't see what's wrong with mankind either.

Inherantly gender-nonspecific alternatives wor well enough (Flight Attendant, Mail Carrier, Fire Fighter, Chair, etc) work well enough, but when you get into "Foreperson," "Congressperson," and "Humankind," it's time to get over it and use "man."
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 26th, 2005 10:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the most cringemaking example I've seen of this is people trying to come up with some sort of gender-neutral alternative to "waiter" and "waitress." When I was working as one, we got referred to alternatively as "waitrons" (which was REALLY unpopular, especially since it had that Clone Army sound to it) or "waits", which always made me feel like I should be singing Christmas carols in between courses. Waitress is fine, thanks.
From: leeflower Date: April 26th, 2005 10:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, see, that's one of those ones. And if someone really wants one term, really, I don't mind, they can call me "waiter."

dudley_doright From: dudley_doright Date: April 26th, 2005 11:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
"if you're trying to be taken seriously, never ever ever ever end anything in 'tron'" - Roommate
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 26th, 2005 10:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
Y-is-feminine is a meme you see a lot on baby-name websites; the number of people who think that Makynzy is more "feminine" than Mackenzie (for me, they're BOTH masculine, thanks) or who want to give their daughters masculine names to make them "strong" but nonetheless want to X it up a bit (so to speak) by replacing some letters with Y's is truly astonishing. Try telling someone that their little daughter JayCynne will not necessarily be more empowered by being essentially named a variant of Jason, but that she'll certainly end up spelling her name out multiple times to everyone she meets, if you want to break your heart.
absurdwords From: absurdwords Date: April 26th, 2005 07:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
True, womyn is utter bullshit from a etymological point of view and people should fuss about what's really offensive.

From: catkind Date: April 26th, 2005 04:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hi fernwithy,
Could it be that humanity tends to be understood as humane-ness? In your first example, at least, that could be confusing. Interestingly, the word humankind doesn't strike me as particularly odd at all - I read it more as un-abbreviating mankind for emphasis. It can't be that much of a neologism either, it seems to be in Webster 1913 (according to dictionary.net anyway).
*runs away and hides nick*
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 04:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Okay, not a neologism, though it sounds like one, and is certainly used for no reason other than silliness about being "gender neutral," which "mankind" already is.

The problem with the "emphasis" is that it's the wrong emphasis--it's a clunky and pointless word, unabbreviating for no good reason, and its cadence is all wrong. The entire feel of the sentence is thrown.

People not understanding the word "humanity" is an annoyance, but not my concern. Use "mankind" or "humanity." Either uses the nice iambic beat that English bounces around to (short-LONG). Humankind, on the other hand, is dactyllic (LONG-short-short), which doesn't fit the language at all.
From: catkind Date: April 26th, 2005 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Now I'm sitting here saying humankind to my monitor, and I can't contrive to pronounce it LONG-short-short at all, only short-short-LONG. Perhaps it's because I'm a Brit.
(and I do love the words iambic and dactyllic!)

No argument, using words just for gender-neutrality is irritating.

I'd argue that using a word with two different meanings in a place where it could be interpreted in both ways is a problem. Probably clear in context.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: April 26th, 2005 05:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think I could do either, but tend to LONG-short-LONG. Not sure which is heavier.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's that LONG first syllable that throws it, even if you try to balance with a long final syllable. The middle syllable, which is the one stressed in normal speech, disappears. The "hu" is stressed, for one thing, because it's the added syllable, and if you're bothering to add it, it's going to be stressed, to show the difference. Just psychology, like the change at the end of one of the Star Trek movies, where Shatner says, "Where no man... no ONE... has gone before..." When it's just "no one," the stress is on "no." But when it's an unnatural morphing, as "humankind" is, the stress changes. And even if it became second nature, the "U" is a long vowel, and that gives it a kind of natural stresspoint at the beginning of the word--I don't know the right phonetic term, but the fact that it's "hyoo" instead of "hoo" makes a difference. It just requires a bit more oomph to get the sound.

Of course, my name is dactyllic--BAR-bar-a--but the middle syllable disappears in common speech, so it becomes trochaic, and depending on the sentence, can be split among iambs. If you stress the final syllable of "humankind" a bit, it could work: the WAY of HU-man-KIND, is sayable. But it can't replace man-KIND if the sentence were orginally, "ManKIND's unRUL-y WAYS." I guess if you're really trying to fit the rhythm, you could totally combine the first two syllables and stress neither, the way the two syllables "ity" are in "humanity"--hum'nKIND--but really, that's pretty awkward, and it would just be more convenient and recognizable to use "mankind" in the first place.
sreya From: sreya Date: April 26th, 2005 04:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

Can't say much to add to that, other than to chime in with annoyance over s/he and the like. Or using "she" as a hypothetical pronoun, when "he" works just as well and is historically inclusive as a pronoun for "anyone who fits this hypothetical person." (Although I'll admit a weakness for slipping in a snobbish "One might think..." once in a while.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't mind s/he written in dry documents, but if you're trying for any sort of writing voice at all... good Lord. And how do you pronounce it in your head as you're tripping along the page? Si-HEE? Shahee? Sashay? Fred?
bluemeanies4 From: bluemeanies4 Date: April 26th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
one of my professors actually wants us to use 'hesh'.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 10:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ouch. My brain.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: April 26th, 2005 11:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Bless you.

(It sounds like a sneeze! It does!)
fatale From: fatale Date: April 26th, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I actually don't notice when people use Humankind. It's fairly cumbersome when I stop and look at it, so I suspect I have a word that I substitute it with unconsciously.
From: arclevel Date: April 26th, 2005 07:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
Some attempts to make language "more" gender-neutral irritate me, but "humankind" doesn't really bother me. As a couple people said above, it rolls off my tongue just fine; not sure why. I didn't notice that, in the bit you quoted, the bracket (for [human]kind) makes it look like Ginsburg may well have said "mankind" or something more like that, and the reporter helpfully changed it.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: April 26th, 2005 07:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I missed Justice Ginsberg's pronouncement, but it fries me that she's bowing to international law as precedent for US judicial rulings.

Didn't we fight some war about this?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 26th, 2005 08:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that was the gist of the article. And using the Declaration of Independence to do it as well! But since it came off a conservative website (National Review, actually), I'm taking their interpretation with a grain of salt until I actually see it. I can't believe that a U.S. Supreme Court Judge--of whatever political persuasion--would actually suggest bowing to any law but the Constitution.
malabud From: malabud Date: April 26th, 2005 09:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, in the recent decision regarding the death penalty for murders committed while the perpetrator is still a minor, the Supreme Court cited laws and customs from other countries in striking down a state law. There are only a few states that do not allow the death penalty in such instances, and most states still allowed it, until the Court intervened that is. That decision makes it at least twice that Court has cited non-U.S. law in its decisions.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recently said that she sees no problem in looking to laws from other countries in certain instances, such as interpretation of the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause, but that non-U.S. law is never binding on the Court's decisions. In my opinion, simply citing non-U.S. law in a decision is a scary step toward making such laws binding on us.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: April 27th, 2005 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Did you read Scalia's dissenting opinion?


I don't ever want that man mad at me. He skinned Kennedy's opinion and roasted it live over a fire.
From: (Anonymous) Date: April 28th, 2005 01:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Law student dittoing what malabud said...there are definitely those in the legal community, including judges, who have no problem with the Kennedy-Ginsburg emergent approach. I'm reasonably sure that NRO had commentary on the juvenile death penalty opinion; you can probably find it in their archives. I'm pretty sure it was discussed on The Corner, too. The funny part was that when it was handed down, even my Swedish prof basically said "was he *serious*???" in class :P

kizmet-he does good roastings live, too. quite something to see. Look forward to reading the opinions *after* finals...

~ Viatrix (Quiller and great admirer of FernWithy's work)
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