Are you a man or woman?
July 20, 2008 6:20 PM   Subscribe

When did adults in Western countries decrease using man/woman when speaking about themselves, e.g. describing their gender? How came this to be?

In Western countries, it's very rare to hear an adult say that he/she is a man/woman when describing himself/herself. Instead, synonyms such as boy/girl, guy/gal, etc are used. For example, take a look at a couple of user profiles here at Mefi - including mine! - and it's obvious that man/woman are rarely used.

When did this change occur? Or maybe it's always been like this? How does it look in other, non-western, cultures? And how about where you live?
posted by Foci for Analysis to Society & Culture (18 answers total)
I think you are describing a phenomenon that is much more limited than you realize. You and people you know != "people in Western countries."
posted by ottereroticist at 6:31 PM on July 20, 2008

I agree. I think this is much less of a general trend than you suggest.
posted by Brockles at 6:41 PM on July 20, 2008

Yes, in many "Western" countries, the general words for man and woman are still used except in hugely informal situations. In fact, that's true in most languages I speak. In all of them, there is some form equivalent to "guy" or "girl" that can be used as "man" and "woman" are, but that's reserved for pretty informal slangy talk.

Mefi is a very casual place; the immediate and informal and way that users can post - even on subjects that one might not discuss openly with long-time friends - enhances the likelihood that a very informal way of relating may occur. We've essentially agreed to meet her as friends, but not necessarily with the real obligations of face-to-face friendship. If we were all archly formal, it wouldn't be as fun, nor would it work as well as it does. So Mefi is a pretty bad means by which to judge this sort of possible language shift.

I have noticed in America a sort of pressure to be young and hip and present oneself as more "cool" than "sage," even in largely anonymous places such as this. And I do feel "man" or "woman" to be a little more stark than "guy" or "girl." But this doesn't necessarily carry over to other countries/languages. And I notice that my friendly older neighbor, who must be in his mid-60s, does not ever say "guy," but rather "fella." So I suspect that this less formal terms have always been pretty common, it's just that they change from time to time, while "man" and "woman" are constants. When I first came to America, I heard "dude" all the time. Now I rarely hear that term except in comedies.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:54 PM on July 20, 2008

I also think it's used more in the internet than in real life. One of my pet peeves is when a blogger, for example, uses the word "Boy" to describe the guy they're dating when the blogger in question is a 30+ year-old woman. I think that it's an attempt to be twee but to me, it comes across as a little inappropriate.

"Man" and "woman" seem formal, which is why people may not use them as often to describe themselves. When I'm referring to other people I usually say "guy" or "lady."
posted by jschu at 6:54 PM on July 20, 2008

Sorry, delete that "and" in the first sentence of the second paragraph. And in the last paragraph, I mistakenly used the singular "this" instead of the plural "these." I am having a bad English day.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 6:56 PM on July 20, 2008

I also think it's used more in the internet than in real life.

And also, the general idea of describing your gender is much more prevalent on the internet than real life. I don't really feel the need to tell many people that I'm a man (or a guy or a fella) since it's hopefully self-evident.
posted by smackfu at 7:30 PM on July 20, 2008

+1 for Confirmation bias. Not saying it's not becoming a trend but I certainly agree that this is less widespread than you say it is. (So perhaps the answer to your question of "When?" is "Now!"? Hmmm....)

Anyway, Wikipedia has an interesting take on this...
"In the 20th century, the generic meaning of man has declined still further (but survives in compounds mankind, everyman, no-man's land, etc). Interestingly, exactly the same thing has happened to the Latin word homo: in the Romance languages, homme, uomo, hombre, homem etc. have all come to refer mainly to males, with residual generic meaning.

The word has historically been used very generally as a suffix in combinations like "fireman", "policeman" and "mailman", because those jobs were historically only jobs that men did. Now that there is an increasing number of women in these jobs, those terms are often replaced by neutral terms like "firefighter", "police officer" and "mail carrier".

Mankind is a commonly used phrase to refer to all of humanity, regardless of sex. However, it is considered sexist by some, and hence, is commonly replaced by "humankind" or "humanity".

Some have proposed alternate spellings for words such as "woman/women" which are perceived as deriving from a masculine term; see womyn. (In some cases, such spellings are based on entirely inaccurate etymologies. The term herstory has been suggested as a feminist alternative to history; however the notion that the term "history" is related to the masculine pronoun "his" is incorrect."

For comparison, the article on the word 'woman' says;
"The word woman can be used generally, to mean any female human, or specifically, to mean an adult female human as contrasted with girl. The word girl originally meant "young person of either sex" in English; it was only around the beginning of the 16th century that it came to mean specifically a female child. Nowadays girl sometimes is used colloquially to refer to a young or unmarried woman. During the early 1970s feminists challenged such use, and use of the word to refer to a fully grown woman may cause offence. In particular previously common terms such as office girl are no longer used.

Conversely, in certain cultures which link family honor with female virginity, the word girl is still used to refer to a never-married woman; in this sense it is used in a fashion roughly analogous to the obsolete English maid or maiden. Referring to an unmarried female as a woman may, in such a culture, imply that she is sexually experienced, which would be an insult to her family.

In some settings, the use of girl to refer to an adult female is a vestigial practice (such as girls' night out), even among some elderly women. In this sense, girl may be considered to be the analogue to the British word bloke for a man, although it again fails to meet the parallel status as an adult. Gal aside, some feminists cite this lack of an informal yet respectful term for women as misogynistic; they regard non-parallel usages, such as men and girls, as sexist."
Taking all this into account, and applying all the usual caveats of "This comes from a Wikpedia article", perhaps you could argue that the use of 'man' and 'woman' has been decreasing due as a result of the femenist movement and the belief that these words are inherently sexist, especially the use of 'man' in the word 'woman.'

Perhaps as a result of this largely academic argument, as well as the fact that language in everyday usage is becoming increasingly more casual anyway (+1 confirmation bias for me, there), the use of 'man' and 'woman' is being replaced with less sexist, more causual terms such as 'guy', 'gal' and so on.

Not saying I neccessarily agree with any of this... just offering it as a possible explanation backed with the barest amounts of research.
posted by Effigy2000 at 7:35 PM on July 20, 2008

It's possible that this is all about confirmation bias, I'll admit that. Internet culture and me being in my Mid-20’s could explain a lot.

Effigy2000: the influences of feminism and everyday language becoming increasingly casual are two interesting arguments. Especially the latter because here in Sweden - I should have mention this earlier, shouldn't I? - we're probably much more casual than in other countries.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 8:05 PM on July 20, 2008

English has 'man' where German, for example, has 'Mann' and 'Mensch', the first clearly masculine, the second corresponding to English 'human' or 'person'. Likewise Swedish 'man' and 'människa'.

But most languages seem to have slang words corresponding to 'dude', 'fellow', or 'mate', etc. Nothing new about that.

(I have a wonderful late-70s book on German slang around here somewhere--published in Germany--that includes the following phrase referring to a vain or fashionable guy: Er ist ein echter Travolta. No idea if anyone ever actually said that in real life.)
posted by gimonca at 8:19 PM on July 20, 2008

You refer specifically to the use of man or woman when referring to oneself.

An alternate take on that; the age of "adulthood" has been pushed further and further higher (eg., second adolescence, or life-begins-at-50) and maybe some people are more reluctant to self-identify as an adult with all it's implicit responsibilities. Or maybe just people who want to deny their age since "when my parents were that age they already..."

For example, many more of my peers would say "I'm a simple boy" or "I'm a simple person" than to say "I'm a simple man." We're in the 25-35 demographic.
posted by porpoise at 8:19 PM on July 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if we're referring to someone else we'll typically use "that dude/guy/chick/girl over there" and use "that gentleman/lady over there" in more formal settings. There isn't much of an in-between.

Hmm, we tend to use woman (but less commonly than lady) much more than just "man."

Well, except for the "man, this sucks ass, dude."
posted by porpoise at 8:23 PM on July 20, 2008

I'd noticed this as well, but I thought it had to with my age. I, too, am in mid twenties, and I think there is a lingering difficulty in calling ourselves 'men' or 'women' instead of 'boys' and 'girls.'

I assume this will change in time, but, maybe not? It could be a generational thing, or simply a symptom of our age.
posted by OrangeDrink at 8:25 PM on July 20, 2008

When I was in university, the very strong trend was to refer to women as women, not girls or ladies or anything else. Professors and other staff, not to mention students, got very upset if you said anything other than "woman" when referring to a woman. This would be early 1990s, when being PC was very much a trend in my part of Canada. However, I don't know if this holds for people outside my faculty and university, let alone elsewhere in society.
posted by acoutu at 8:52 PM on July 20, 2008

I've never noticed this around here. Here being Southwestern America. Maybe it's different in some places, I don't know. But I do think that 'Western Countries' is a huge over generalization.
posted by Precision at 9:06 PM on July 20, 2008

I think with females, it's partly because of the erosion of the class distinction between "woman" and "lady".

Calling someone a "lady", especially directly, sounds either old-fashioned or like you're trying to be Philip Marlowe.

However, calling someone "woman" rather than "lady" has traditionally been mildly insulting.

Calling someone a "girl" sidesteps the issue.

Regarding males, I think the trend is less developed. Females have started to use "boy" to match "girl" for people in their twenties, but I don't think many twenty-something males describe themselves as "boys".
posted by TheophileEscargot at 11:28 PM on July 20, 2008

Related: Dude, especially the external links.
posted by dhartung at 11:30 PM on July 20, 2008

I'm another person in the mid-20s set who has noticed this among my peers. "Women" are definitely people older than me, though in my youth I would have considered someone my age to be a woman. I also have a hard time seeing my guy friends as "men" - I think this is partly because I've known them since we were in high school, and they still seem the same to me. We all talk about this from time to time. We still feel like college students masquerading as grown-ups, but then when we're around college kids we realize we're a lot older/more mature than them. Still, we don't feel like the responsible, stable adults that our parents, teachers, and other authority figures of our youth seemed to be.

Actually, I think instability has a lot to do with it. I think of "men" and "women" as adults who have basically figured out their career path, probably settled down with a spouse and a mortgage, whose futures are not so up in the air anymore. Though many of my friends have a spouse, or are quite permanently settled with a mortgage in a particular city, or feel they have found their career calling, very few of them have all three of these figured out yet. We live in a time when we're encouraged to follow our passions, where we feel that the world is our oyster, but all these options lead to a lot of instability. Maybe we'll pick up and move across the country. Maybe we'll completely change careers, or go back to grad school, or drop everything to travel the world for a year. We also live in a time with an uncertain economy, which makes it hard to count on our jobs still being here in 5 years, which makes us reluctant to commit to a mortgage. We have so much uncertainty in our futures, and it makes us feel like we're not adults yet. Maybe someday we'll have a plan, or maybe we'll realize that no adults ever really do, but it's hard to feel like a Man or a Woman when you haven't figured out yet what you're doing with your life.
posted by vytae at 8:00 AM on July 21, 2008

I am 21 and I tend to not use man or woman unless I'm talking about people maybe in their thirties or so. I think of myself as a young woman, but that's awkward to say. I definitely don't think of my peers as men or women, and it feels strange to refer to my brothers (25, 28 and 29) as men although I guess I could refer to the older two as men now.

I don't think this is a general adult thing. I think it's something that happens more among people in their twenties.
posted by quirks at 2:11 PM on July 21, 2008

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