Over dinner with friends recently, a weird word came out of my mouth: "mans."
"She mans the inventory room at the store," I think I said, referring to a character in my upcoming YA novel, and then I clapped my hand over my mouth in horror and started to backtrack. The word seemed to come from nowhere, especially since this character would never use it to describe what she does, and I normally wouldn't, either. Why use a verb like "mans" when what you really mean is "helms" or "runs" or "is in charge of"? Why bring the patriarchy into it at all, even involuntarily?
But it just goes to show how pervasive language is, how it gets into our brains and comes out of our mouths; how once internalized, it often stays, even as we disagree with its use or meaning. For instance, every time you say "woman" you probably don't think immediately that "woman" is a derivative of the word "man." And yet. Also, almost no one says anyone "womans" anything, and I think if they did I might punch them.
Something some of us like to say a lot these days is "words matter." (I agree with this: They do. They really, really do.) Which is why it's important to use the words we truly mean, not the words that have simply gotten embedded in our brains for some reason or another a long time ago and are coming out as a matter of rote. It's important to consider the history of the word, and why we're using it, and its connotations and ramifications. And it's important to allow language to change, to allow its speakers to create new and better words, as needed. After all, quite a lot of the words we use today were codified and legitimized by the white men who were educated and ran things. Which, it seems, is why a verb like "mans" even exists.
Wanting to know more, I spoke to Kory Stamper, author of the book Word by Word and a former lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. She confessed that she's been guilty of "mans," too: "I end up using it in situations where it's paired with a pronoun so it's clearly not man, like 'She's manning the booth.' You feel like you're assigning gender unintentionally. I cringe in response. It's terrible."
Is it going away? I asked, hoping that someday we might be free from all this manning. "People are much more sensitive to it," she said, citing NASA, which refers to "crewed" and "uncrewed" ships (yay, NASA). Other people use "staffing" or "running" or "handling" instead. "I think in that sense there's more of an awareness," she told me, "because you can't get around it that there are very few things that only men get to do these days."
But why do we say "mans" in the first place? The word goes back to late Old English; its earliest uses were military or nautical, she explained: "Manning a ship. Manning a castle. Very early on it had these official connotations, and we still associate it with that, manned spacecraft."
In fact, there was also a push for the analogous "woman" verb, to "woman" something, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, it was used "humorously, very consciously … more of a har, har, har than inclusive," she says. Which is probably why we still don't say womanned, or if we do, it comes off as facetious. But dictionaries, which don't make the language but report it as it's most commonly used, have a slightly more open view, at least for the moment. Merriam-Webster's first definition of the noun "man" is "an individual human; especially: an adult male human." Compare that to the first definition for "woman," which is simply "an adult female person."
This should come as no surprise to anyone, but I'm floored looking at language this way. Suddenly it seems so overt, so manipulative! Of course the words we use were created by men, men manning the linguistic booths for as much time as they could grab. Stamper clarifies that "mans" initially didn't mean human; it referred to men in military or nautical settings. "And a lot of people just don't think much about it."
But there is hope. According to what Stamper describes as her "nerd software," the verb "staff" has been increasing in use; it's 10 times more common than the verb "manned" between 2010 and the present day. This a recent development. Between 1800 and 2000, she found, the verb "staff" was used minimally; it only caught on between 1990 and 2000 when it increased "at least 500 percent," while the verb "manned" plummeted. As the "man" drops, "staff" goes up exponentially. Clearly, not every place is staffed by men.
In June, President Trump spoke at the National Federation of Independent Businesses' 75th Anniversary Celebration. He told his presumably male-dominated audience, "You embody the spirit of independence and adventure that turned America from 13 colonies into the most incredible republic in the history of humankind. See, I don't say mankind anymore; I say humankind. [Laughter.] Do the women understand that? [Applause.] I don't know. They want me to be politically correct."
I don't put much credence in words that include a scolding for the expectation that they be used, nor words that come with the request for a pat on the back. The women have understood "that" for a long time, Mr. President. But what people say matters. Ban "mans" from your vocabulary and use "staffs" instead. Or whatever gender neutral verb you choose! Humankind of all sorts will be a little bit better for it.