Why did English "man" and Latin "homo" take both the sense "gender-neutral human" and "male adult"?

According to etymonline.com, English "man", and incidentally Latin "homo" (which originally meant "gender-neutral human") superseded more specific words like "were" and "vir" in the sense of "adult male". Is there any theory as to why this happened?

This part is just secondary, feel free to ignore it: It seems (to me) beneficial to have both "man" and "were", both "homo" and "vir", because "woman" might not end up being considered "sexist" (?), and you might not have had to borrow "person" or "human" from French. Non-gender-based languages like Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. have managed to keep words for "human", "adult male" and "adult female" just fine, so why don't English and Latin (and their daughter and sister languages for that matter) do that? Is this phenomenon universal among gender-based languages? Not to make a feminist statement here, but apparently if a group of people consist of 100 females and 1 male, they will be referred to as "ils" in French, or "female" appears to be a product of a male-dominant mindset as it was falsely, folk-etymologically built on "male", so gender role probably plays a role here (which is one of the many reasons I have to agree with this guy).

  • 3
    I think English preserves the neutral form as well as other languages, though the use it dominantly with a bias, as in Man is not immortal , does your question consider that? Oct 24 '17 at 6:03
  • 2
    Mere historical contingency, maybe? Why-questions such as these tend to be difficult to answer. English made "man" synonymous with "male human" but related German preserved (from the same root) Mann ("man") and Mensch ("person"), as well as man ("one", as in "one must do what one can").
    – pablodf76
    Oct 24 '17 at 13:15
  • There do exist matriarchical societies, but they are not common. Languages with non-gendered pronouns (ta in mandarin, u in Persian) still have a tendency to cognitively assume the referent is male. Men have been self-centered (jerks) forever in whatever society.
    – Mitch
    Oct 24 '17 at 21:00
  • 1
    Can you clarify your question? It is unclear what the base data and features of that data are from your question. Is it some languages have three words, one for a male, one for humans male or female, and other languages have one word for humans that also is for males, and then another word for female? And is the other feature 'has grammatical gender' on non-pronoun non-human nouns? Or is it something else? Can you clarify exactly your position? First we have to describe the reality before we can speculate on reasons.
    – Mitch
    Oct 25 '17 at 17:13
  • 2
    The first half of your question talks about the lexical terms for human, adult male human, and adult female human; but then the last part of your question drifts into to gendered pronouns. These are somewhat related, but not the same question. Is your main question simply about the words for human/man/woman? Otherwise this may be "too broad". Oct 25 '17 at 20:13

I misread the question, so this is strictly speaking not an answer any more but still relevant: in biblical Hebrew, אישׁ 'yš can refer to "man" as a male adult and to a human in general, and it's much more common than אדם 'dm "human". The verb has masculine and feminine endings; the plural feminine ending is only used for groups that consist solely of women, for all other groups, the masculine plural is used.

In the case of Hebrew I think it's widely agreed upon that this is because of men being more important in society in general: this leads to the word "man" occurring much more often than "woman", which eventually leads to it taking on the meaning "somebody". I presume a similar argument can be made for Latin and English.

  • 1
    English and Latin seem to show a completely different, if not outright inverse phenomenon. In Hebrew, according to you, the masculine word became neutral. In Latin and English, the opposite happened: the neutral word became masculine. Oct 24 '17 at 19:27
  • 1
    @LuísHenrique you are right, thanks. I misread the question.
    – Keelan
    Oct 24 '17 at 19:42

I am not sure about English, but in Latin the phenomenon might be part of a much wider set of grammatical changes. Latin had three genders, but Romance languages typically have only two. What happened is that the Latin masculine and neutral genders collapsed into a single gender, which is called "masculine" in Romance languages. This collapse is related to similarities between masculine and neutral words, which were intensified by the drop of final consonants in the evolution of Classical Latin into Vulgar Latin.

So in this case it was quite probably more of an issue of phonology and its impacts on the grammatical structure of the language than an ideological one.


I think it is as simple as historical, gender bias. Men have pretty much always taken dominance in societies, especially in roles of power (politics, religion, warfare, business). When one would think about humans (man) and their contributions, one would almost be referencing men. Man has built cities, man has cultivated crops, man has conquered lands, man has mapped the stars, etc. Women have been seen more as a side role to men, here to serve, to bear offspring, not to learn, work, or command. I speak not out of personal belief, but from what I know of history. Of course, every society isn't and hasn't been like this but vast majority have and are.

A simpler solution for modern times as to why it hasn't changed might be because we are lazy, at least as far as English goes. Man is easier to say, write, and type than 'humans' or any other variation. Three letters is all it takes. This also eliminates the need for an additional, new word. Same reason why people use 'they/them' as a pronoun for a person which the gender is unknown, because it's easier than saying him/her every time. It's easier to say 'man' than humans or man/woman.

PS: I think my first argument might help explain why 'brotherhood' takes prevalence in most forms when used as opposed to brother and sisterhood, especially since there isn't specifically a gender-neutral form of the word. Same with fraternity, as it can be used to describe a group of males with bonds or group of people in general, with bonds. As far as student Greek organizations go, fraternity can be male-only or co-ed whereas female-only will only be a sorority.

Ultimately, it's one of those words that requires context to determine if one is talking about men or men and women. Unfortunately, some people require the use of something completely gender-neutral choices or both gendered iterations, which many are too lazy to do.


Men have traditionally been "public". Men are often traditional rulers (kings, chieftains) and the heads of households. Not so long ago men were the only visible political agents, as elected leaders, ministers, etc. and also (in democratic societies) as voters. In many countries it was only in the last century that women could enter some public professions, graduate from universities, etc. Traditional gender roles, still prevalent in many parts of the world, place men in the public sphere and "hide" women. All of this has no doubt influenced the shift of words like homo from "human being" to "man, male". This is however speculative. We don't know why people started using homo to mean "male human being", thus losing a perfectly good generic word, even when they had another perfectly good term, vir, to designate men. We can only document the change and guess at the cause.

Gender roles aside, historical contingency obviously also plays a role. While English changed the main meaning of man from a generic human being to a male one (all the while preserving the generic sense because of the gender issues mentioned above), closely related German did differently: it did change Mann into "male human being" but kept Mensch (derived from the same root) to mean "person", and the indefinite pronoun man to mean "one" (not unlike French on). Modern German also notably employs Mann and Frau ("man" and "woman") as synonyms for "husband" and "wife", a parallelism that is not found in other languages (e. g. in Spanish one says mi mujer, lit. "my woman", to mean "my wife", even though mi hombre "my man" does not mean "my husband"). German speakers are, I'm sure, not particularly less prone to assign gender roles than English speakers, but this does not show in this particular subset of its lexicon.

  • Men have traditionally been "public" - that I get, because that's the case in the majority of societies, ranging from North America to Asia. Even in the rarely occurring apparent matriarchies, you still find old wise male elders in consultant positions more often than female ones. But then what I would call "linguistic gender favoritism" seems to be inherent only to European gender-based languages, at least based on the few I'm aware of. Maybe there's a lot of other languages out there that do this too, hopefully someone more inclined on world's languages could help clear it up. Oct 25 '17 at 13:36
  • 1
    Well, other languages do not have grammatical gender but express rigid gender roles in other ways. Japanese does not have gender, but the characters in 家内 kanai "(one's) wife" literally mean "in the house", and women are expected to employ certain words and grammatical structures to soften their assertiveness.
    – pablodf76
    Oct 25 '17 at 13:41
  • But kanai just seems descriptive, as in "well, women are usually the ones who stay indoors to keep the hearths warm" or something like that, it doesn't just flat out deny their importance or significance like using the word "man" for "human" in general. Oct 25 '17 at 13:47
  • 1
    That was just a note. Your question was narrow enough; the whole topic of how gender roles are reflected in different languages can't be dealt with here.
    – pablodf76
    Oct 25 '17 at 15:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.