The English usage of the words "male" and "female" for "man" and "women"

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Buckaroo Banzai, Jan 26, 2015.

  1. Buckaroo Banzai Mentat Registered Senior Member

    (Sorry if that's not the most appropriate subforum, just seemed better than "history" or "art and culture", but I'm not sure)

    I'm not a native speaker of English, and even though I got used to it and almost forgot it, I've initially found weird and interesting the use of the words "male" and "female" meaning man and women. In Portuguese it sounds "too biological", no one speaks that way, it's almost like one who's not a suspiciously nazi-like/mad scientist sociobiologist all of a sudden dropped "animals" in a non-derogatory/totally natural way of speaking of people, but without using it to make a bridge to a zoological/ethological argument. Ie., not "that's a perfectly normal animal behavior, it's a defense mechanism", but just "the classical music festival attracted a vast horde of animals, of all nationalities and walks of life".

    I was wondering then if this usage ("male" and "female", referring to people, not "animals") is something that was always somewhat common in English, or something more recent, perhaps of a "politically correct" motivation, to address traditional notions of "man" and "woman" while avoiding to add caveats regarding sex-gender mis-identifications, and the prefix "cis" (which, by the way, is really technically correct? To me seems a little bit a mistake, like when people refer to non-electronic/"digital" things as "analog", like "analog painting", or "analog music", when electronic can be also "analog", and perhaps there are arguably non-electronic "digital" mediums and instruments at the same time).
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  3. mathman Valued Senior Member

    All animals (including humans) have male and female. Could you give an example of a context where you don't think it sounds right?
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  5. Buckaroo Banzai Mentat Registered Senior Member

    (Some animals are asexual and some species don't have males

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    In English, as I've said, I got used to it, so it's never weird. But you simply can't translate it literally to Portuguese without sounding very weird, in any context that isn't more significantly biological. I.e., "whether there is a pay gap between males and females". It would just sound like "the problems that afflict animals working in the IT industry", when still speaking only about humans. People just never use such wording, even though it's not technically wrong, as humans are animals. Even in a more biological context you'd rarely see male/female being used interchangeably with man/woman, but it would be more like "in most animal species, males will often have more testosterone, therefore men are predisposed to be more muscular".

    Somewhat analog "weirdness" from a native English speaker would be gendered words, or some instances. I recall the actress Amy Irving, who at some point had learned Portuguese, mentioning in an interview that she found weird that "dress" is a "masculine" word ("vestido"), making it a "male" object, even though only females (typically) wear dresses, and that it should more logically be a feminine word ("vestida", which is just the feminine for "dressed", and would never be understood as "a dress" by a native Portuguese speaker, except perhaps if the person saying it had a German accent).
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  7. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The basic definition of the words "male" and "female" are not synonyms for "man" and "woman." These are everyday words used by farmers, hunters, biologists and everyone else who needs to distinguish male animals from females.

    Their usage for humans is a new development that I began noticing about 60 years ago when TV shows about police became popular. They could not use the words "man" and "woman" for suspects, victims, etc., because the law makes it necessary for them to clearly distinguish between adults and children when possible. If a cop says, "the perpetrator was a female about 5 feet 9 inches tall," he's admitting that he doesn't know if the person is old enough to be treated as an adult, but he knows for sure that she was female: a woman or a girl.

    This usage spread to other professions, such as health care, education, sports and military recruitment, in which gender matters.

    We don't commonly refer to our friends and family members as "males" and "females." They are men, women, boys and girls.
    As I noted above, this is relatively recent. In writings from the 19th century, and going back to the dawn of Middle English in the 12th and 13th centuries, people were men, women, boys or girls. Of course other words were used, such as "wife" for "woman" (we still have the word "goodwife"--properly pronounced "goodie"--although it only arises in stories about past eras) and "lord" for a wealthy, powerful man.
    The word "cisgender" is a rather estoteric way of saying that a person's behavior and personality are aligned with his biological sexuality. The more commonly used slang word for this is "straight." "Transgender" is much more commonly used, for a man who prefers to have sex with men or a woman who prefers to have sex with women. There are a great many slang words for these people, most of which are insulting.
    "Digital" is the opposite of "analog," not of "electronic."
    This is true of vertebrates and some of the lower phyla, for example the arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans, etc.), but it is absolutely not universal.
    In Spanish, macho and hembra (their version of your word feminina) are used for non-human animals. It's only rather recently (probably in the 1950s or 60s) that macho has come to mean "stereotypically masculine" in a derogatory way, such as a man who likes to fight, does not take good care of his family, etc. This adjective was quickly assimilated into English, along with the noun machismo. The Village People had a big pop music hit with their song "Macho Man" in the 1970s.
    No American would raise his eyebrows upon reading this phrase, yet very few of us would actually speak or write it. I'm a professional writer and I always write "between men and women."
    English nouns and adjectives have no gender. Only our (singular) pronouns have it: he/she, him/her, his/hers.

    I appreciate Chinese because it has no genders at all, not even in the pronouns. Ta means "he," "she" and "it." If it's really necessary to specify that someone is male or female, you simply say it: "male teacher," "female doctor."
  8. Buckaroo Banzai Mentat Registered Senior Member

    That's interesting. In Portuguese such ambiguity would most likely be worded somewhat differently, most of the time, even though it may indeed be worded in such extremely technical way, just changing subtly, "the perpetrator was of the feminine sex", which "de-biologifies" somewhat, in comparison with male/female.

    I know these words are not exactly "synonyms", but the use is comparatively much more interchangeable, whatever is the actual grammatical label for this situation. Even though perhaps I'm overestimating it somewhat. This somewhat different wording, "person of the masculine/feminine sex", is not that uncommon in Portuguese, but I still have the impression that it's far less commonplace than "male/female" in English.

    But "straight" would be technically wrong, they'd argue that a trans-person could be "straight" in relation with the newly chosen sex. There are also gay transexuals, someone who's born as a male, has sexual attraction to females, but also "identifies" as a female, and eventually has a "sex-change" operation, and becomes then a "lesbian" (perhaps a "trans-lesbian").

    My beef with "cisgender" is that I think that perhaps the etymology of the "cis" doesn't really pairs as an antonym with the "trans" of transgender. Sort of implies the word "cisformed", for something that wasn't "transformed". The cis/trans antonym pairing I know is for molecular isomers, when a "trans" isomer isn't necessarily a "transformed"/changed state of the "cis" molecule, it can even be the other way around, the molecule could be originally "trans" and the "transformed"/isomerized molecule would be "cis", but I don't think it would be referred as a "cisformation" of the molecule. Similarly, non-trans-Atlantic ship routes wouldn't be referred as cis-Atlantic.

    Now that we're talking about PC lingo, anyone else HATES the meme-explanation, "subjects act, objects are acted upon"? So I think no one can really be subject to violence then, uh?

    ... I'm sorry for yelling... I got out of myself...

    Perhaps that's not the best example, but if you google for "female male" plus something "human" like "IT industry", you'll pretty much just find the terms being referred to people, whereas if you search for the same terms in Portuguese, "male" and "female" will be either something related to non-human animals that was somehow still indexed along with "IT industry", or it would be about cable connections.

    Really makes gender-neutral writing a lot easier (totally taking the ideograms out of consideration). I also feel uncomfortable writing "he or she" all the time, and "they" doesn't feel quite an adequate replacement all the time.

    And just in order to look less like a conservative ranting about everything PC, I also don't like when people refer to exercising/working-out as "training" when they don't actually compete doing the exact same thing they're "training" for, nor typically do something that's strongly analog, so that one could say that's what they've trained for. I think Jerry Seinfeld manifested a similar opinion on that on one of his sketches. See, I just complain, in general.
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2015
  9. Buckaroo Banzai Mentat Registered Senior Member

    Yes, and there are even electronic things that are analog (even though "analogical" is more commonly used). What irritates me is when people use "analog" as an "opposite" of "electronic" (well, not quite, the opposite would perhaps be technically "positronic", but say, "not-electronic", then, like a plain acoustic guitar, a piano, or oil paints), which is also taken as a synonym of "digital". Electronic keyboard is "digital" instrument, and a piano is an "analog" instrument. Makes me want to hit the instrument in the person's head and vice versa and say "ANALOGIZE THIS". Sorry, again.
  10. Walter L. Wagner Cosmic Truth Seeker Valued Senior Member

    We also use them to distinguish mechanical parts; for example the male hose coupling inserts into the female hose coupling.
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  11. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    English uses fewer syllables than Portuguese to express the same idea. Japanese and Italian probably hold the world's records for greatest number of syllables--at least among languages that are well-known. This requires them to be spoken very quickly. Spanish comes close; Portuguese elides many syllables so it can be spoken quite a bit more slowly than Spanish or Catalan. (At least the European dialect, in which cinco is pronounced "cinc.")

    French and English are at the other end of the spectrum: we utter fewer syllables per second, making our languages easier to understand in a noisy environment, by foreign students, etc.

    Chinese takes the prize. For every ten syllables spoken in Chinese, it takes 13 in English or French, and 20 in Japanese or Italian. This allows Chinese to be spoken much more slowly, which is very useful in a country where everyone is expected to be able to communicate in Mandarin even though about 1/3 of the population speak other, related languages including Cantonese, Shanghai and Fujian.
    "Straight" is a slang word that means, specifically, a person whose sexual preference is aligned with his anatomical gender. If a person has a sex-change operation, he or she will never be identified as "straight," no matter whether his sexual preference aligns with his new gender. He or she will always be referred to as a transsexual--at least by people who know about the surgery.
    The same is true of lesbians. Only a natural-born woman who is sexually attracted to other women is called a "lesbian."
    I don't know how people deal with Portuguese words in Brazil or Portugal. In English (American, British, Australian or Indian) we recognize the difference between grammatical principles and the physics of the universe.

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    Since the dawn of the Industrial Era in the 19th century, the "work" most people do (in the industrialized countries) has steadily lost the need for physical labor. As a result, we have to do physical exercise in order to maintain our health. We have appropriated the word "training" from the vocabulary of professional athletes, whose exercise is, indeed, training for their sport.
    In English, the word "analogical" is used only in specific relation to analogies.
  12. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

    In Japanese one uses 男 (otoko) and 女 (onna) to speak of male and female humans, while 雄/牡 (osu) and 雌 (mesu/me) refer to animals. The latter are used for animals in academic Chinese, while 公 and 母 would likely be used in a non-academic context.

    Presumably, using the wrong type of gender signifier would be an insult of itself and magnify the impact of other insults, so I presume "bakame" is spelled 馬鹿雌 and is strong language.

    The question of how to discuss the gender for a hypothetical star-faring tool user might be a sensitive matter. One native Japanese speaker said he would use the human terms if the alien "felt human."
  13. Randwolf Ignorance killed the cat Valued Senior Member

    Fraggle, this was not my understanding of the proper usage for "Transgender" so I googled it...

    Transgender is the state of one's gender identity or gender expression not matching one's assigned sex. Transgender is independent of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc; some may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable to them.​
    (Wiki - yeah, I know)

    Can you confirm one way or the other?
  14. rpenner Fully Wired Valued Senior Member

  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I don't know very many han zi--"Han symbols" (read kanji in Japanese and generally pronounced that way in English). The Chinese (Han/Mandarin) words are nan for "male" and niu for "female."

    In general, only family relationships have dual forms for gender: older female cousin = biao jie, older male cousin = biao ge. But other words like "friend" take the standard gender markers: male friend = nan peng you, female friend = niu peng you.
    The Japanese are big on shame and insults. If you use the wrong word in Chinese it will probably inspire only laughter.
    I'm sure we anglophones would do the same thing. My concern about this encounter is more serious: it's quite possible that when we first discover living creatures on another planet, we may not realize what they are. gives this definition of "transgender" in American usage:
    "noting or relating to a person whose gender identity does not correspond to that person’s biological sex assigned at birth."​
    But the British usage is different (and simpler):
    of or relating to a person who wants to belong to the opposite sex​

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