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Jacques Barzun on man

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

On an earlier page I said that in this book I would adhere to the long use of man as a word that means human being-people-men and women alike, whenever there is no need to distinguish them.... The reasons in favor of prolonging that usage are four: etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of "man and woman," and literary tradition.

To begin with the last, it is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served. In Genesis we read: "And God created Man, male and female." Plainly, in 1611 and long before, man meant human being. For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; "Man inhabits all the climatic zones." Logicians have said "Man is mortal," and philosophers have boasted of "Man's unconquerable mind." The poet Webster writes: "And man does flourish but his time." In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which context makes clear.

Nor is the inclusive sense of human being an arbitrary convention. The Sanskrit root man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for "I think." In the compounds that have been regarded as invidious-spokesman, chairman, and the like-man retains that original sense of human being, as is proved by the word woman, which is etymologically the "wife-human being." The wo (shortened from waef) ought to make woman doubly unacceptable to zealots, but the word as it stands seems irreplaceable....

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To repeat at frequent intervals "man and woman" and follow it with the compulsory "his and her" is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires .... Besides, the would-be reformers of usage utter contradictory orders. They want woman featured when men are mentioned but they also call for a ban on feminine designations such as actress....

Finally, the thought occurs that if fairness to all divisions of humanity requires their separate mention when referred to in the mass, then the listing must not read simply "men and women," it must include teenagers. They have played a large role in the world and they are not clearly distinguished in the phrase "men and women." Reflection further shows that mention should be given to yet another group: children.

This article is excerpted from Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), pages 82-83.

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