One Small Step for Crew, One Giant Leap for Crewkind

 

I should write a technical post on the emerging post-Shuttle age of manned space flight, but I’ll leave that for Rand Simberg, James Gawron(?), John Walker, and the others who are more knowledgeable. Instead, I’m going to bring up a NASA language peeve: The tendency to misrepresent the meaning of “man” and “manned.”

NASA, depending as it does on public relations, has probably always been a PC kind of place, at least in the public face it puts on. There is a great Bloom County cartoon satirizing the tendency to promote “firsts” in space by race, sex, and ethnicity. Those of you old enough to remember the Apollo days or earlier will no doubt recall discussions of “manned spaceflight.” But since at least the 1990s, and I suspect the 1980s, the term “manned” has been suppressed in NASA use in favor of the clunkier “human spaceflight.” Today, that inelegant phrase is increasingly replaced by the unfortunate-sounding “crewed.”

If it were just confined to PC-ness at NASA, I’d roll my eyes and not worry. But I’ve seen science outreach types scold people on Twitter and Facebook for using the traditional English, so it’s come into the realm of the social media pile-on. I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself, from a friend who referred to women being “oppressed” by the word.

This is all a misunderstanding of the language and perpetuates the falsehood that something “manned” specifically refers to males. The English word man goes clear back to the very beginnings of our language, Old English (ca. AD 500), with the original meaning of a human being of either sex. In fact, it comes straight from the Proto-Indo-European word man- (ca. 4000 BC) with the same meaning. The usual Old English words for adult male and female were wer (still retained in “werewolf”) and wif (root of “wife” and the first syllable of “woman”).

The secondary meaning of man as an adult male didn’t begin until very late in Old English, around the year 1000. That’s a little before the transition to Middle English, which occurred after the Norman invasion. As that meaning became common, wer was largely dropped, and wif began to take on the more specialized meaning it has today, though the original use survives in midwife and old wives’ tales, among others. And of course, man retained its original meaning, which we still use.*

Now as a verb, to man (leading to manned) is also old. It dates back to Old English as mannian (with the infinitive ending), and it comes from that original meaning of the noun man as “human being.” The example I linked above is nearly a century before man began to split its meaning. So while a lot of things that are manned (ships and forts are among the usual examples) have often been done by males, the word was understood as referring to humans and applies to women as well. The word man simply did not have a sex-specific meaning when the verb was coined.

Making a point of changing this word is to misunderstand its meaning. Worse, by making a point of it, this reinforces the mistake and leads others to misunderstand it. This is why I’m not playing along. The next time I get scolded for not using “inclusive language,” I’ll explain how this is inclusive language.

I’m getting most of the etymology from Douglas Harper’s wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary, but I’ve confirmed his timeline with the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.

There are 48 comments.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    Good luck. I make a point to use Mankind whenever I am talking big. Humankind sucks.

    • #1
    • February 21, 2017, at 10:52 AM PDT
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  2. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    I left this out because it’s tangential, but it’s interesting that woman, which dates back to the 8th century, is a compound of wif and man (the f was elided). Wif was used in its sense of “woman,” and man was used in its sense of a human being. So woman doesn’t mean “the wife of a man,” but rather “woman-person.” It tells you what kind of man (human) this is—a female. There was a corresponding form, “weapon-man” (I can’t find the O.E. spelling now) that meant a male.

    So the PC feminists who went around misspelling woman as “womyn” because they didn’t know -man meant “person” left unadulterated the “wife” prefix. Interesting.

    • #2
    • February 21, 2017, at 11:27 AM PDT
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  3. Trink Coolidge

    Tim H.: The next time I get scolded for not using “inclusive language,” I’ll explain how this is inclusive language.

    Good on you Tim!!

    This PC business is maddening.

    • #3
    • February 21, 2017, at 11:30 AM PDT
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  4. Matt Bartle Member

    NASA needs a “crewed” cut.

    • #4
    • February 21, 2017, at 11:40 AM PDT
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  5. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    I’ve got a friend who once heard a feminist end a public prayer by saying Awomen, because Amen is patriarchal.

    • #5
    • February 21, 2017, at 11:46 AM PDT
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  6. Eb Snider Member

    I’m with you here on this. With its heyday of NASA in history I think as an organization it probably has to do whatever it has to do to maintain funding. If that includes silly, ignorant PC language to gain support, then that’s what administrators will do. I never thought that “manned” space flight was sexist or that it was every intended that way.

    Actually, I thought last year that some PC people might attack Neil Armstrong. After all he said “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. With how crazy speech police have gotten recently I thought it was only a matter of time before Armstrong might become the target of derision. And anything named after him or honoring him must be protested from that PC point of view. This might at first seem outlandish. However, after I saw MLK being protested by students wanting some quote or something of his taken down at a University for not being inclusive, I thought “well I guess there’s no hope for anybody anymore”.

    The brakes need to be put on the PC speech police movement already.

    • #6
    • February 21, 2017, at 12:04 PM PDT
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  7. tigerlily Member

    I wonder if they play man-to-man defense in woman’s basketball.

    • #7
    • February 21, 2017, at 1:26 PM PDT
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  8. Mark Wilson Member

    Tim H.: Today, that inelegant phrase is increasingly replaced by the unfortunate-sounding “crewed.”

    I think it is time to move beyond crude spaceflight to something more sophisticated.

    Also, what word will we use when they start taking up people who are not part of the crew, like, you know, passengers?

    • #8
    • February 21, 2017, at 4:19 PM PDT
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  9. Mark Wilson Member

    tigerlily (View Comment):
    I wonder if they play man-to-man defense in woman’s basketball.

    In women’s hockey they still have defensemen.

    • #9
    • February 21, 2017, at 4:22 PM PDT
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  10. Valiuth Member

    Just more conservative PC pearl clutching about other peoples use of the language. Crewed is a bit crude but whatever man. We ain’t got no rules to this thing, and I resent your conformist demands, that we let ourselves be constrained in our word usage to what some Saxons spoke 1000 years ago. A ship after all has a crew more specifically than it has men. So why not say crewed rather than manned? What will we say when a ship is piloted by robots and men are only passengers? Perhaps then the distinction will become more necessary and manned will be revived. Or, will we just say personned or passangered?

    • #10
    • February 21, 2017, at 5:04 PM PDT
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  11. Western Chauvinist Member

    NASA neutered. We don’t have any vehicles anyway. We’re not going anywhere without hitching a ride. Weak.

    • #11
    • February 21, 2017, at 5:56 PM PDT
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  12. James Gawron Thatcher

    Tim,

    Obviously, you are actually interested in language. Your traditional etymological investigation sheds much light on society and culture going back thousands of years. Apparently, you don’t grasp the fundamentals of idiot PC linguistic gender, race, ethnicity obsession.

    The massive exaggeration of a trivial point is what’s important. Knowledge not so much.

    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    • #12
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:24 PM PDT
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  13. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    NASA neutered. We don’t have any vehicles anyway. We’re not going anywhere without hitching a ride. Weak.

    The only place we’ve been hitching a ride to is the International Space Station. Big deal. SpaceX has been delivering cargo there since 2012 and in 2018 will start testing of manned launches. Then our astronauts will be riding in privately-owned spacecraft instead of government spacecraft. Seems worth suffering a few years of bruised national pride by riding in Russia’s rockets.

    • #13
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:29 PM PDT
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  14. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I’ve got a friend who once heard a feminist end a public prayer by saying Awomen, because Amen is patriarchal.

    This was grandstanding with her own ignorance. For others who don’t know, amen is Hebrew for “so be it.” It only coincidentally looks like English men.

    That’s the kind of thing that aggravates me, because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and they are making a big issue out of it.

    In college, one of our R.A.s had a flyer on his door complaining about racially biased language—how “black” and “dark” things had negative connotations, like the word “niggardly.” I looked the etymology up on a Post-It note and stuck it next to his flyer to explain how it’s entirely unrelated. He got onto a high horse about anonymous people (me) posting arguments on doors.

    These days, that would probably lead to a ban on dorm door Post-It notes. ;)

    • #14
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:44 PM PDT
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  15. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Mark Wilson (View Comment):

    Tim H.: Today, that inelegant phrase is increasingly replaced by the unfortunate-sounding “crewed.”

    I think it is time to move beyond crude spaceflight to something more sophisticated.

    Also, what word will we use when they start taking up people who are not part of the crew, like, you know, passengers?

    Let’s man a robotically-flown spacecraft entirely with women passengers, and see what they call it. :)

    • #15
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:48 PM PDT
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  16. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    The massive exaggeration of a trivial point is what’s important. Knowledge not so much.

    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    Yeah, I’m afraid that’s what motivates some of these people. I had followed one lady on Twitter who’s good on astronomy outreach, but it got to be where most of her comments were complaining about social issues (tangentially related to astronomy), and I gave up following.

    The professional astronomers’ Facebook group quickly grew to about 8,000 members and was a fantastic place to keep up with the news in our field and discuss the results. But then the social media person for the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy started cross-posting all of their blog items (sometimes twice a day). Most of the time, the comments were just people agreeing with them, but on the rare occasion someone politely, cautiously disagreed or asked them to cut back the political posting just a hair, it turned nasty. I’ve stopped visiting it, sadly.

    It is with some satisfaction that I’ve noticed the people who get the most caught up in these issues are not the most productive or creative scientists, and I think some of them want to make up for their lack of status in research by achieving a kind of notoriety arguing social issues in its place.

    • #16
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:56 PM PDT
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  17. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    P.S: I’m trying to remember—was it you who told me on another thread about your career as a NASA aeronautical engineer? That was the (?) in my original post.

    • #17
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:57 PM PDT
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  18. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only place we’ve been hitching a ride to is the International Space Station. Big deal. SpaceX has been delivering cargo there since 2012 and in 2018 will start testing of manned launches. Then our astronauts will be riding in privately-owned spacecraft instead of government spacecraft. Seems worth suffering a few years of bruised national pride by riding in Russia’s rockets.

    Did you see Sunday’s SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 39 A? Elon Musk has accomplished a lot in a relatively short time. I’m eager to see where the new era of commercial manned spaceflight gets us.

    • #18
    • February 21, 2017, at 7:58 PM PDT
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  19. James Gawron Thatcher

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    P.S: I’m trying to remember—was it you who told me on another thread about your career as a NASA aeronautical engineer? That was the (?) in my original post.

    Tim,

    Not me. I was an analytical instrument/process control guy for a while. John Walker seems to know NASA rocket science inside & out. Hey, but why strain yourself with quantum physics, rocket engineering, and control computers when you can be so successful annoying people with pronouns. Protons are very difficult. Pronouns are child’s play. Don’t worry be happy.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #19
    • February 21, 2017, at 8:50 PM PDT
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  20. GrannyDude Member

    I’ve also long associated “manned” with “hands.” As in “manual labor.” And, given the importance of hands in human life and development, I liked the idea that “human” and “hand” were etymologically connected.

    Tangent: there is a theory that the first human language was sign language, and predated our ability to vocalize. The obstacle for those attempting to teach chimpanzees to speak was their vocal apparatus not their cognitive ability; when they switched to teaching sign, chimps could communicate with us quite well. Not as well as a person, of course, but well enough to be able to give us a sense of an interior consciousness.

    So then the idea sprang up; maybe this is a sort of artificial (man-made!) phylogeny recapping ontogeny! And the first humans signed with their newly-freed, tool-worthy and weapons-grade hands?

    For those who want to get deep into the evolution and use of the human hand, particularly the way in which the hand and brain evolved each other (can you use the verb that way?) look for The Hand by Frank Wilson.

    • #20
    • February 22, 2017, at 5:05 AM PDT
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  21. Johnny Dubya Inactive

    My prediction: NASA, tiring of snickers about how “crewed” sounds like “crude,” will continue on its word treadmill and begin using “humanned.”

    • #21
    • February 22, 2017, at 5:22 AM PDT
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  22. Larry3435 Member

    I love Bloom County. It remains a beacon to all of rational mankind. And yes, in this case mankind includes penguins and deranged cats. Also lawyers.

    • #22
    • February 22, 2017, at 5:44 AM PDT
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  23. Randy Weivoda Moderator

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):

    The only place we’ve been hitching a ride to is the International Space Station. Big deal. SpaceX has been delivering cargo there since 2012 and in 2018 will start testing of manned launches. Then our astronauts will be riding in privately-owned spacecraft instead of government spacecraft. Seems worth suffering a few years of bruised national pride by riding in Russia’s rockets.

    Did you see Sunday’s SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 39 A? Elon Musk has accomplished a lot in a relatively short time. I’m eager to see where the new era of commercial manned spaceflight gets us.

    No, but I did watch the short video of a SpaceX rocket’s vertical landing. It was linked to from The Daily Shot on Monday.

    • #23
    • February 22, 2017, at 6:21 AM PDT
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  24. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    P.S: I’m trying to remember—was it you who told me on another thread about your career as a NASA aeronautical engineer? That was the (?) in my original post.

    Tim,

    Not sure if you are remembering me. Still here @ GSFC, (at last for a few more years) but I have zip to do with the manned, humane, peopled, crewed side of the house. Most of my stuff is with sensor design for you guys (mechanical/thermal), either looking out, our looking down.

    • #24
    • February 22, 2017, at 7:04 AM PDT
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  25. Trinity Waters Inactive

    Randy Weivoda (View Comment):
    I’ve got a friend who once heard a feminist end a public prayer by saying Awomen, because Amen is patriarchal.

    That’s the worst I’ve seen. Yikes!

    • #25
    • February 22, 2017, at 8:19 AM PDT
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  26. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Johnny Dubya (View Comment):
    My prediction: NASA, tiring of snickers about how “crewed” sounds like “crude,” will continue on its word treadmill and begin using “humanned.”

    Gag! Oh, boy, I hope not. But I can picture this happening.

    • #26
    • February 22, 2017, at 9:13 AM PDT
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  27. Tim H. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    GLDIII (View Comment):

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    James Gawron (View Comment):
    Regards,

    Jim(?)

    P.S: I’m trying to remember—was it you who told me on another thread about your career as a NASA aeronautical engineer? That was the (?) in my original post.

    Tim,

    Not sure if you are remembering me. Still here @ GSFC, (at last for a few more years) but I have zip to do with the manned, humane, peopled, crewed side of the house. Most of my stuff is with sensor design for you guys (mechanical/thermal), either looking out, our looking down.

    I’m probably commingling you and James Gawron and coming up with a composite member! Regardless, I’m glad to hear you’re keeping it clean, not crewed.

    P.S. What building at GSFC? I was in the late, lamented Building 2 before I left, and most of my friends have moved into Building 34.

    • #27
    • February 22, 2017, at 9:22 AM PDT
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  28. Mark Wilson Member

    Johnny Dubya (View Comment):
    I’ve also long associated “manned” with “hands.” As in “manual labor.”

    You do occasionally see “human spaceflight”, which is useful for distinguishing it from the various space programs that have popped up in the animal kingdom.

    • #28
    • February 22, 2017, at 9:43 AM PDT
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  29. Mark Wilson Member

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):
    I’ve also long associated “manned” with “hands.” As in “manual labor.”

    Ahem, don’t you mean womanual labor?

    • #29
    • February 22, 2017, at 9:44 AM PDT
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  30. Richard Easton Member

    I’ve shared this picture before, but I have a story that’s pertinent to the thread. An Air Force historian referred to Vanguard 1 as a robotic spacecraft. I was surprised with the term robotic until I realized that using the term unmanned was un PC. Here I am with the robotic/unmanned 4th satellite to reach orbit and the oldest unmanned/robotic one which is still in orbit (I’m wearing the red coat).

    .

    • #30
    • February 22, 2017, at 10:39 AM PDT
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