Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

On the etymology of man

Posted by Fredsvenn on November 20, 2016

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”).

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”).

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.

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

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.

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.

In the late twentieth century, the generic meaning of “man” declined (but is also continued in compounds “mankind”, “everyman”, “no-man”, etc.). 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.

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