English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in A Feminist Ethic for Social Science Research by the Nebraska Sociological Feminist Collective (Lewiston/Queenston: Edwin Mellen, 1988), pp. 119-138. First published in Reza Ordonbadian and Walburga Van-Raffler Engel, Views on Language (Murfreesboro, Tenn: Inter-University Publishing, 1975), pp. 96-108.


The recent controversy concerning the use and reference of so-called "generics" in the English language reveals the extent, if not the nature, of the political investment at stake in preserving the myth of generalized reference. Before I offer my data and observations regarding this myth, I wou1d like to emphasize that the arguments supporting generics, especially man, men and mankind, are not substantive, but political, and those who would like to maintain the use of masculine nouns as general references are relying on popular misconceptions, not linguistic data. Of course, if linguistic history provides clues to the outcome of this controversy, I have to conclude that popular misconceptions (those definitions with the most political power backing them) will prevail, and the data I present here will become another set of "interesting" historical articles that we will choose to ignore because the evidence is embarrassing. On the basis of my evidence, there are no "generics" in English. I have found that that portion of our vocabulary that refers to human beings is divided into two unequal sub-classes. By far, the larger sub-class contains those nouns that designate the affairs of men.