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Man Up: Say No to ‘Inclusive Language’

When we amputate from English the universal term "man," we give up speed and precision at once, plus much more

What God has joined together, let man not put asunder.

I have taken an oath before God and man.

It’s a night not fit for man or beast.

Man proposes, God disposes.

I wandered idly, and found myself in No-Man’s Land.

Without his best friend the dog, man might never have been able to domesticate the ox, the horse, or the sheep.

Man’s ascent has been sudden; his decline will be no less so.

“They are Man’s,” said the specter to Scrooge.

Nancy Lieberman was at her best in man-to-man defense.

“Language changes,” I am told by people who wish to justify a politically imposed refusal to use the word man in such sentences as those above. That’s not news to me. I read ten or eleven languages, and those include several parent-child pairs. When languages change naturally, it is always for greater speed, greater ease of pronunciation or hearing, greater clarity, greater precision, or greater versatility. The only exceptions I can think of are when we trade precision for speed or ease, as when a pair of similar-sounding words fall together and we lose the distinction between them. So masterful has fallen together with masterly, and disinterested threatens to fall together with uninterested. We never, by nature, give up both speed and precision at once. That would be a kind of linguistic self-mutilation.

But that is what we are required to do—to give up speed and precision at once, along with a uniquely characterized set of meanings—when we amputate from English the universal term man.

Consider how quickly and confidently we understand the sentences I listed above. Had I said that the basketball player Nancy Lieberman excelled at woman-to-woman defense, you might think I was making fun of her, because the sex of the opponent is not relevant to the situation. Had I used the phrase one-on-one defense, I would have obscured the meaning, focusing not on the team, but on Lieberman as a single player.

No one doubts that the phrase man’s ascent includes women and children. No one says, “You were in No-Man’s Land, but there were girls and boys hanging from the trees and running about and laughing.” If I say man is made in the image of God, no speaker of English will think for a moment that I am excluding boys (since, in other uses, man is distinguished from boy, as in “Never send a boy to do a man’s job”), or officers (think of a sergeant and his men), or women. We are not confused about “the ascent of man.” The understanding is immediate, clear, and forceful.

Man is more than an acceptable term to use. It is the perfect term to use, and no other English term can replace it. None does the work that the all-inclusive man does.

Before I show why, I wish to note what happens when, for political purposes and not by the demands of a language changing naturally, we will ourselves into ambiguity or stupidity. Consider the fashionable use of the word partner, as a feature of a self-enforced ideological etiquette, to denote “husband,” “wife,” “live-in girlfriend,” “live-in boyfriend,” “fiancée,” “fiancé,” and “business partner,” depending on the case—all to avoid the obvious husband and wife. If I then say, “John and his partner Mary are looking for a house,” I am going well out of my way to refuse to be clear. Far from expressing what I think, the willed exclusion of husband and wife from my vocabulary is meant to obliterate from my thought the objects they denote. My ideological etiquette, the chloroform over my mouth, must dull and fog the mind.

The harm is immeasurably worse when we use ideological etiquette to dull the meaning of Scripture. No word in English but man does what Hebrew ’adam and Greek anthropos do. We need a word that is singular, not plural; specific, not general; concrete and personal, not abstract or impersonal; and unitive and universal, not merely collective. The term must include all persons, individually and as a whole, in one specific, concrete, personal, and unitive term, denoting each man, woman, and child individually, and all human beings both generally and considered as one single agent.

No substitute will do. If I say the dog is “the best friend of the human race,” I have said something that in one sense is absurd: dogs do not know “the human race.” They do not know generalities. I have also lost the powerful and immediate bond, which is personal, between the dog and man, each man, every man.

If I say, “I have taken an oath before God and human beings,” I have lost the strong coordination of persons, with God on one side and man on the other. I have replaced a universal term with one that is merely plural, when the plural is not relevant: it excludes an oath I might make before God and one person (let us say, my brother) who is and who represents man.

If I say, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder,” I have lost the universal and unitive term. No one is unambiguous, as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. It is not sharp, not concrete, not personal. The words of Jesus set God against man, singular against singular. It is because God is God and man is but man that man should not presume to touch what God has joined together.

What about the easy pronoun we, or people? They will not do. They are plural, not singular; they call up no image of a single person; they are not immediately understood as universal. If I say, “We propose; God disposes,” what do I mean? Am I talking about a group of persons? Which group? Am I talking about individuals? All of them together? Each one? Would that be clear? And what is the difference between those who are included under the vague we or people and God? Man disposes suggests John here and Mary there, and all human groups, and the entire human race considered as one actor, and it does so with a sharp image, in clear balance with the term God.

Sometimes the substitute alters the meaning. St. Paul says we are to “put off the old man,” the man of corruption and sin, and “put on the new man” (Eph. 4:22-24). The old man is Adam—the name of every unregenerate human being. The new man is Christ. But rather than translate Greek anthropos as what it means, man, our lectionaries render it as self—when the self as such is not part of the text at all! Paul is not recommending a twelve-step program to improve the self. I am not even myself until I am Christ’s.

Enough of the willed stupidity. Even a feminist will use the jocular masculine term guys to denote a group of people she greets upon entering a room.

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