Man (word)

This article is about the word "man". For adult males, see Man. For other uses, see Man (disambiguation).
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The term man (from Proto-Germanic *mannaz or *manwaz "man, person") and words derived from it can designate any or even all of the human race regardless of their sex or age. The word developed into Old English man, mann meaning primarily "adult male human" but secondarily capable of designating a person of unspecified gender, "someone, one" or humanity at large (see also German man, Old Norse maðr, Gothic manna "man"). More restricted English terms for an adult male were wer (cognate: Latin vir; survives as the first element in "werewolf") and guma (cognate: Latin homo; survives as the second element in "bridegroom").

However, man in traditional usage (without an article) refers to the species, to humanity, or "mankind", as a whole. The usage persists in all registers of English although it has an old-fashioned tone.

Equating the term for the male with the whole species is common in many languages, for example in French (l'Homme). On the other hand, some languages have a general word for 'human individual' which can apply to people of either gender. German has the general word Mensch, but Mann for (adult) male person; Latin has the general word homo and for males the word vir; modern Standard Chinese has 人 (/rén/), analogous to the German Mensch not English Man; the words 男人 (man) and 女人 (woman) are both diglyphs with the gender designations of individuals prefixed before 人.

*Mannaz or *Manwaz is also the Proto-Germanic reconstructed name of the m-rune .

The Latin root word man means “hand.” This root word is the word origin of a number of English vocabulary words, including manuscript, manufacture, and manicure. An easy way to remember that man means “hand” is through the word manual, an adjective which describes a task done by “hand.”


It is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root *man- (see Sanskrit/Avestan manu-, Slavic mǫž "man, male").[1] The Slavic forms (Russian muzh "man, male" etc.) are derived from a suffixed stem *man-gyo-.

In Hindu mythology, Manu is the name of the traditional progenitor of humankind who survives a deluge and gives mankind laws. The hypothetically reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form *Manus may also have played a role in Proto-Indo-European religion based on this, if there is any connection with the figure of Mannus reported by the Roman historian Tacitus in ca. AD 70 to be the name of a traditional ancestor of Germans and son of Tuisto; modern sources other than Tacitus have reinterpreted this as "first man".[2]

In Old English the words wer and wīf (and wīfmann) were used to refer to "a man" and "a woman" respectively, while mann had the primary meaning of "adult male human" but could also be used for gender neutral purposes (as is the case with modern German man, corresponding to the pronoun in the English utterance "one does what one must").

Some etymologies treat the root as an independent one, as does the American Heritage Dictionary. Of the etymologies that do make connections with other Indo-European roots, man "the thinker" is the most traditional — that is, the word is connected with the root *men- "to think" (cognate to mind). This etymology relies on humans describing themselves as "those who think" (see Human self-reflection). This etymology, however, is not generally accepted. A second potential etymology connects with Latin manus ("hand"), which has the same form as Sanskrit manus.[3]

Another speculative etymology postulates the reduction of the ancestor of "human" to the ancestor of "man". Human is from *dhghem-, "earth", thus implying *(dh)ghom-on- would be an "earthdweller". The latter word, when reduced to just its final syllable, would be merely *m-on-. This is the view of Eric Partridge, Origins, under man. Such a derivation might be credible if only the Germanic form was known, but the attested Indo-Iranian manu virtually excludes the possibility. Moreover, *(dh)ghom-on- is known to have survived in Old English not as mann but as guma, the ancestor of the second element of the Modern English word bridegroom.[4]

In the late twentieth century, the generic meaning of "man" declined (but is also continued in compounds "mankind", "everyman", "no-man", etc.).[5] The same thing has happened to the Latin word homo: in most of the Romance languages, homme, uomo, om, hombre, homem have come to refer mainly to males, with a residual generic meaning.

The inflected forms of Old English mann are[6]

sg. pl.
nom. mann menn
gen. mannes manna
dat. menn mannum
acc. mann menn

The inflected forms of Old High German word for man (without i-mutation) are[7]

sg. pl.
nom. man man
gen. mannes mannô
dat. manne, also man mannum, mannun, mannom, mannen
acc. manann, also man man

The inflected forms of the Old Norse word for man, maðr, are:[8]

sg. pl.
nom. maðr menn
acc. mann menn
dat. manni mönnum
gen. manns manna

Modern usage

The word "man" is still used in its generic meaning in literary English. The verb to man (i.e. "to furnish [a fortress or a ship] with a company of men") dates to early Middle English.

The word has been applied generally as a suffix in modern combinations like "fireman", "policeman" and "mailman." With social changes in the later 20th century, new gender-neutral terms were coined, such as "firefighter", "police officer" and "mail carrier," to redress the gender-specific connotations of occupational names. Feminists argued that the confusion of man as human and man as male were linguistic symptoms of male-centric definitions of humanity.[9]

In US American slang, man! also came to be used as an interjection, not necessarily addressing the listener but simply added for emphasis, much like boy!.

Also in American English, the expression The Man referring to "the oppressive powers that be" originated in the Southern States in the 19th century, and became widespread in the urban underworld from the 1950s.

See also


  1. American Heritage Dictionary, Appendix I: Indo-European Roots. man-1. Accessed 2007-07-22.
  2. Annihilating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide, p. 12, Alexander Laban Hinton, University of California Press, 2002
  3. George Hempl, "Etymologies", The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 22, No. 4 (1901), pp. 426-431, The Johns Hopkins University Press
  4. Online Etymology Dictionary s.v. bridegroom. Retrieved 2011-12-01.
  5. "man, n.1 (and int.)." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 13 November 2015.
  6. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 6th ed p. 29.
  7. Karl August Hahn, Althochdeutsche Grammatik, p. 37.
  8. Old Norse Lesson Seven by Óskar Guðlaugsson and Haukur Þorgeirsson
  9. Dale Spender, 1980. Man-Made Language.
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