Annals of anthropomorphism

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Wired newsletter 6/3/2019:

From the article:

Our Sun, moon, and neighboring planets might seem cute, but make no mistake, space is no picnic and certainly no garden party. Sometimes a star can get kicked out of its host galaxy, for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When really massive stars die, they explode into a supernova, and then there’s a chance the core of the dying star collapses in on itself, creating a neutron star. Yet this collapse may not be symmetrical—resulting in an off-kilter force so strong that it expels not just the one dead star, but a nearby one too. "It’s like a guest that's asked to leave a party with a rowdy friend," Xiangyu Jin of McGill University tells NASA. Now that’s something we can all relate to.

On a tangent, this reminds me that there are many English words etymologically derived from Greek άνθρωπος "man" that are thereby implicitly sexist: anthropology, anthropocentric, anthropocene, misanthropy, etc.

Our culture has pretty thoroughly replaced chairman with chair, and congressman with various alternatives, and so on — are these anthropo- forms protected by etymological disguise?


  1. Vicki Rosenzweig said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    "άνθρωπος" is often translated as "man" in contexts where "human" would be more accurate, both to meaning and to the Greek. The classical Greek for "man" in the sense of "male human" is άνερ," and the genitive of that, "άνδρος," is the root of "misandry."

    A misanthrope is someone who doesn't like, or doesn't like being around, people. Someone who dislikes male humans is a misandrist, and dislike of males as a class is misandry: both terms that are used to attack feminists and lesbians even if they have male friends.

    If anything, I'd say that following that mistranslation of "άνθρωπος" to reject words whose root means "human" is implicitly sexist.

    [(myl) Do you think the same way about the generic use of male terms in "The Rights of Man" (or "Les droits de l'homme"), or in compounds like chairman or craftsman or congressman?]

  2. Terry Hunt said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 8:29 am

    As I understood it, the word 'man' in its various Germanic forms itself originally meant 'human', with elaborated forms such as wifman and leofman being used for gender specification, but for *reasons* the male-specific form in English (and elsewhere?) lost its qualificatory attachment(s), which has led to originally non-gender-specific usages of 'man' (and '$man') acquiring an originally unintended sexual bias.

    Dropping the 'man' from '$man' constructions is one of the current measures emerging to avoid such latterly acquired sexist implications (another being to choose alternative non-specific forms, e.g. 'fireman' -> 'firefighter') but, if only for the sake of a better future understanding of historical literature, I feel it's a pity that the rehabilitation of 'man' to primarily mean 'human' has not been attempted.

    This being a linguist's blog (and I being a non-linguist), I expect that my doubtless flawed "understanding" outlined above will be usefully critiqued, and I would particularly appreciate an expert explanation of the *reasons*.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 8:51 am

    Perhaps this reflects politically-motivated changes in pedagogy since myl's own schoolboy days rather than changes in the underlying facts about ancient languages, but by the time I encountered the classical languages in the 1980's we were standardly taught in first-year Greek that άνθρωπος was (although this may not yet have been the exact wording used to express the concept) "gender-inclusive" as contrasted with άνερ, which was specifically male, just as we were standardly taught a few years earlier in first-year Latin than "homo" was gender-inclusive as contrasted with "vir," which was specifically male.

    Now, it is certainly true that άνθρωπος (and homo) is a masculine noun rather than a neuter one And it is an interesting fact that as the m/f/n gender system of Latin collapsed into m/f in most (all?) more recent Romance languages, words descended from "vir" generally got crowded out by words descended from "homo" like "homme" or "hombre" or "uomo" which were maybe less gender-inclusive than their etymon (and indeed the cultural context of actual Latin usage may have made use of "homo/homines" in the context of identifiably female referents rare or marked, because usually femaleness was thought so salient that you would use a more specific word that made that detail explicit).

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 8:58 am

    Vicki Rosenzweig is correct to say that άνθρωπος basically meant 'human being' in Classical Greek, so that MYL's contention in the O.P. that words like anthropology, misanthropic, etc. are implicitly sexist is, well, open to challenge. But it's also true that words that mean 'human being' seem to have a tendency to drift off to meaning 'male human being'. Latin homo was like Greek άνθρωπος (Latin vir meant 'male human being'), but at least in French (homme) and Italian (uomo) the word has come to mean primarily 'male human being' while still keeping its allegedly generic meaning – hence Les Droits de l'Homme. Trying to distinguish cause and effect here is a little tricky, but I don't see that continuing to use words like anthropology is somehow incompatible with, say, replacing fireman by firefighter.

    [(myl) I don't have any intuitions about Classical Greek, but the standard dictionary translates ἄνθρωπος as "man", with the "human being" reading apparently the result of the usual default generalization:


  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 9:09 am

    And indeed it turns out that "andrology" is an actual thing, although it's not a word I recall hearing or seeing too often. And "anthropology" has a much wider semantic scope in English than andrology + gynecology.

  6. GH said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 9:33 am

    What's the etymological relationship between the words άνδρος and άνθρωπος in Ancient Greek? (They look similar enough that I assume there must be one.)

    If anthropos is derived from andros, is there any general rule or pattern to how a -pos ending alters the meaning of the root word?

  7. Thaomas said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 9:41 am

    Maybe my Greek is just not fluent enough, but I do not sense the maleness in "Anthropocene" as I do in "fireman." I guess we could call it the Catastrophocene if we want to retain the Greek roots.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    I think we can safely say that anyone who thinks Venus and Mars are cute has never been there.

  9. Jamie said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 10:07 am

    We shouldn't anthropomorphise nature; she hates it.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 10:12 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: Very likely. I think we can also safely say that anyone who doesn't think Venus and Mars are cute has never been there.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 11:05 am

    @GH, while there is no absolute guarantee that wiktionary fully and accurately reflects the current state of etymological scholarship, FWIW it says that there are rival theories floating around (one of which is consistent with your intuition), with no apparent current consensus about which one is historically accurate.

  12. Jimmy Hartzell said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 12:12 pm

    I think the way to read that dictionary of ancient Greek is that the translation of "man" is in the gender-neutral sense of the *English* word man, which is the older sense (still remember my female Old Norse professor finding out that she can no longer plausibly say "I am a man" and how upset she was about this meaning change). But "anthropos" –> German "Mensch" and "aner" –> German "Mann." "Anthropos" contrasts with "theos" or "angelos" but "aner" contrasts with "gyne"… where "aner" and "gyne" are both "anthropoi."

    This can be verified by checking any language where there is a traditional enough gender-neutral word for "human" that it gets used by Bible translators, and see that "anthropos" and "aner" are translated differently…

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 12:48 pm

    I wonder if there was something in Late Roman culture that led to the identification of "human" with "male" and hence to the elimination of vir in favor of Vulgar forms of homo. I also wonder if it was the influence of French on English that prevented the latter from adopting the newfangled (8th-century) Germanic mennisco (Mensch, mens, menneske, människa etc.) as the equivalent of the original homo.

  14. Ellen K. said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 1:09 pm

    @Coby Lubliner, you mean besides the kind of gender bias that's existed in most societies of historical times?

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

    I think I agree with Jimmy Hartzell that the Liddell & Scott excerpts need to be read with attention to how the semantics of the noun "man" in English have noticeably changed since they were writing. But I'm also fascinated by how if you scroll down to the bottom of the L&S treatment of άνθρωπος you get:

    II. as fem., woman, Pi.P.4.98, Hdt.1.60, Isoc.18.52, Arist.EN1148b20; contemptuously, of female slaves, Antipho1.17, Is.6.20, etc.; with a sense of pity, D.19.197.—Prop. opp. θηρίον, cf. ἀνήρ; but opp. γυνή, Aeschin.3.137; ἀπὸ ἀνθρώπου ἕως γυναικός LXX 1 Es.9.40, etc.

    It would be interesting to get a better sense of what was going on in those usages.

  16. Milad said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 4:18 pm

    Get a life, dear sir. What's next? Verifying masculine words (in languages where that distinction exists) by their genitalia?

  17. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 4:23 pm

    they aint sexist, sins 'anthropo' is 'somebody', 'human'. it lead us to carnism, to eating animals and being bad to them, when they's like us.

  18. Brett said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 6:59 pm

    I find it most interesting that German has two words descended from man: Mann, which is definitely "adult male human"; and Mensch, which means just "human." "Rights of Man" in German is "Menschenrechte."

  19. chris said,

    June 3, 2019 @ 9:05 pm

    Looks like the tangent has completely taken over the comment thread.

    "Rights of Man" in German is "Menschenrechte."

    And of course in English it's usually "human rights", at least in this century. Does French have a separate non-gender-specific word, and if so, why don't they use it? Just the fact that the specific people who came up with the phrase were (almost?) all men and Frenchmen (hmm…) have been repeating it ever since?

    In practice, I expect ignoring women is a good way to get a failing grade in anthropology (except maybe if your professor is narrow-minded enough not to notice) – the present meaning is not gender specific at all. Several commenters above seem to think that this is how "anthropos" has always worked.

    Combining Jimmy Hartzell's comment with Brett's, how do German Bibles handle New Testament passages that contained "anthropos" in the original?

  20. Robert Coren said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 10:09 am

    @Chris: French has gens, which is a gender-neutral term for "people" in the plural; I'm unaware of any gender-neutral singular equivalent of English human or German Mensch — does any French-speaker here know different?

  21. yoandri dominguez said,

    June 4, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    german "man" mean sombody an french "on" mean "we" in evryday speech. this thread aint smart. "men" in german is both genders or either. the etymology dont bother em (an fem gender is unmarked unlike masc in accusative, the cases is sexist since fem is neuter.)

  22. Andrew Usher said,

    June 5, 2019 @ 7:30 am

    What is this issue anyway? Regardless of the Greek, one can not doubt that 'anthropology' in English has always been gender-neutral, and so with all other words I know containing the root. As has been pointed out, 'misanthropy' is not 'misandry' and never has been.

    And 'human rights' is indeed the common phrase today, but unfortunately can't be said to mean the same thing as 'the rights of man/men'. The reason? When people today talk about 'human rights', there's always an implied assumption that they are something we do have in our country (at least for white men) and are something that dictatorships, primitive places, and others we don't like have a problem with.

    This is far from the original use of 'Rights of Man', which referred primarily to one's own country, acknowledging the eternal fact that no regime is perfect when it comes to respecting those rights that we all _should_ have. I'd like to be able to say 'the rights of men' to stress that point.

    And returning to the original, I'm not sure that compounds in '-man' really are sexist. Those that have been standard long enough for the vowel in '-man' to be invariably schwa seem to me to have lost any suggestion of maleness: fireman, policeman, chairman, congressman … do so no more than what they describe does; and the '-woman' equivalents sound somewhat jarring, as 'authoress' or 'manageress' would, and for the same reason. For the first three, indeed, we normally avoid it by saying 'firefighter', 'police officer' (those two are long-standard anyway), 'chair'; but we can't escape the ugly 'congresswoman'.

    k_over_hbarc at

  23. philip said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 7:50 pm

    FR personne (f) is a neutral term for a human being.

    Surely, on this argument, the term 'woman' could also be seen as sexist as it derives from the term 'man'.

    Irish has a very useful noun – an té – covering humans of both sexes (and I use 'both' and 'sex' deliberately there), and its associated pronoun is masculine only because the noun itslef is masculine: an té nach bhfuil láidir, ní mór dó a bheith glic = someone who is not strong needs to be clever.

  24. Michael Watts said,

    June 7, 2019 @ 10:07 pm

    I agree with Jimmy Hartzell and J. W. Brewer that the quoted dictionary entry defines Greek ἄνθρωπος in terms of the gender-neutral English word man, as in "woman", "mankind", "the laws of man and god", etc. etc. Just reading to the end of that primary definition says that the word means "man", as contrasted with "gods".

    If anthropos is derived from andros, is there any general rule or pattern to how a -pos ending alters the meaning of the root word?

    Don't get confused by the endings; anthrop·os is nominative and the stem of the noun is the anthrop-; andr·os is genitive (nom. anēr) and the stem of the noun is andr-. Those are still similar enough to be plausibly related, but the difference is an -op-, not a -pos.

  25. David Marjanović said,

    June 9, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    "The standard dictionary" is a hundred years old…!

    Combining Jimmy Hartzell's comment with Brett's, how do German Bibles handle New Testament passages that contained "anthropos" in the original?

    Mensch. Always. In Tolkien translations, too.

    A thousand years ago, both English and German had a completely different word for "adult male human" – wer, the cognate of Latin vir. In both languages this has disappeared except in werewolf/Werwolf. (The modern German pronoun wer "who" has a completely different origin.) But because German had Mensch available, the narrowing of Mann from "human being" to "adult male human being" happened several hundred years earlier than in English.

    For "human being" in the singular, French today has personne (grammatically feminine) and être humain (grammatically masculine).

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