Humanity vs mankind

Note (2015-09-23 09:45 UTC): updated to include clarification that "human" and "man" don't share a root.

It has been a very long time since my last blog post but I've been making a book, cycling across Europe, and had little to say in long-form.

This post is about language - particularly language commonly used in astronomy/space contexts. On Monday, I read a very useful article about inclusive language by Dr Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk). It specifically talks about phrases such as "manned spaceflight", "mankind", "manmade", and "unmanned" and alternatives such as "human spaceflight", "humanity", "artificial", "robotic".

Not everyone understands why some word choices can exclude people who aren't male. It may seem illogical that "mankind" is seen as exclusive whereas "humanity" isn't. It is common to think they share the root word "man" so why aren't they equivalent? The answer isn't simple or necessarily logical. English is messy. Linguists say they don't share a root but, even if they had, current interpretations of words aren't always consistent with past usage or with other words that appear to have a common root. An unrelated example would be "awful". This used to mean "inspiring reverential wonder" but now mostly is a synonym for "bad". "Awesome" is now a synonym for "good". Those two words may share a root but these days have more or less opposite meanings.

There are no doubt several contributing factors to why, currently, "human" and "humanity" are seen as more inclusive than "mankind". Let's start with "mankind". One problem is that "womankind" exists as a word that refers to all women. Use of "womankind" peaked around 1899 and has declined since (as has use of "mankind") but its existence means "mankind" acts in two roles; as both a generic and a term for all men. Women have to mentally include themselves in "mankind" whereas men don't. There are studies showing that male-based generic terms aren't all that neutral as they tend to lead to male-based mental imagery.

As far as I know, the term "human" has not been used as a term for only one gender with modified versions of it for others. Although linguists know the "man" in "human" isn't a postfix, is can look like it is one. In practice, both men and women have to do the brief mental process to modify the "hu" to include themselves rather than only women. For me, these reasons make "human" and "humanity" much more inclusive. Of course, this does not mean I want to erase all past use of "mankind". That would be silly (the modern usage of silly rather than the older usage meaning "happy, fortuitous, prosperous").

I'm aware that many older people don't see a problem here and may even think that "humanity" is an ugly word or proclaim this is "political correctness gone mad". I think it is just language changing as it always has. I've grown up with the term "human" used throughout science-fiction as a term that distinguishes us from alien species or robots. To me "humanity" is a natural term to use and "mankind" feels old-fashioned. I expect my aliens to say "take me to your leader, puny human".

When it comes to the term "un-manned" I've always been a bit confused if that includes everything from instrumentation to tortoises. I prefer to use "robotic" for spacecraft without biological passengers. If robots/software ever become sentient, they may not appreciate being defined by what they aren't i.e. "unmanned". Of course, they may not like the historical baggage of "robot" either.

Ultimately, people can choose whatever language they want to use. They should also appreciate that associations and connotations change with time and an old "generic" term may not be what it once was. In the early 21st Century I'm on the side of humanity.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 23rd Sep 2015 (02:59 BST) | Permalink
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