February 13, 2004

Someone's Inhumanity to Someone Else

The problem with the gender-neutral translations of "Greater love hath no man..." is that they just don't sound as good. But I think there's a serious semantic difficulty in coming up with a gender-neutral translation for this phrase:

Man's inhumanity to man.

The problem is that I think this phrase plays on the ambiguity of "man" between specific people and humanity in general, somewhat like the Malcolm Lowry poem that starts "How like a man is Man, who rises late." (Not on the web, damn it!)
There's no gender-neutral word for the whole species that can also signify an individual. And if you said "Humanity's inhumanity to humanity," that would make it sound as though the species is both the collective agent and the collective target, which I think is not what is meant.

(The official Opiniatrety position on gender-neutral language is that it's nice to use language that doesn't connote a specific gender, but sometimes it sounds funny. Usually when I need to denote a generic person in my papers I use "she.")

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 13, 2004 09:27 AM

Usually when I need to denote a generic person in my papers I use "she."

I started doing that as an undergraduate. At first it sounded a little weird, in part because I wasn't used to it, and in part because it was less common then. But now hearing people assume their generic character in an example is male strikes me as odd, while generic "she"s seem the most natural thing in the world.

Posted by: Brian Weatherson at February 13, 2004 05:01 PM