What is the opposite of “man”

Here is a linguistic oddity that I’ve been aware of for some time. What is the opposite of “man”?

  • Boy (because he’s immature)
  • Woman (because she’s female)
  • Machine (because it’s artificial)
  • Beast (because it’s not rational)
  • God (because he’s not mortal)

All equally valid answers, because a man is an adult male natural rational mortal.


I can’t think of any other word that carries such a weight of meaning (“Woman” isn’t so mired in different dimensions of meaning because of the historical accident than “man” has often stood in for mankind — or humankind, if you prefer.)

I’m not sure what to do with this observation, other than to wonder about the glut of “masculinity in crisis” articles — here are some randomly chosen examples in the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph. Could it be that they arise because people are confused about what they mean by being a man? Do we have men who worry that they need to be more male when what they really need is to be more mature, or more rational?


10 responses to “What is the opposite of “man”

  1. One reason why ‘man’ has such a weight of meanings may simply be because it’s so very old. It likely had the meaning ‘human being of either sex’ right back in Proto-Indo-European… ‘adult male’ is a much newer meaning: Old English used ‘wer’/’wif’ for the gendered variants.

    (But you know all this, of course.)

  2. Remember – “man” is also a verb. “Man the barricades”.

    What its antonym would be, in that sense, I don’t know.

  3. I usually think of the concept of “opposite” as applying to adjectives and adverbs, more so than nouns. It seems to me that you’d have similar issues trying to identify the opposites of “badger”, “lamp” or “pavement”, for example.
    The point you’re making about what it means to be a man is interesting; I’m just not sure it has anything to do with opposites.

  4. It’s true that “badger”, “lamp” and “pavement” lack meaningful opposites. (True story: I was at a wine-tasting once when one of my friends asked, in the context of flavour, what’s the opposite of fruit. Another friend instantly replied “gravy”.)

    But in the case of most nouns (including the ones you gave), the issue is that they words have no credible opposite. Very different from the case of “man”, which has five.

    Why do I think of them as opposites? Because it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine someone saying “I’m a man, not a _______!” of each of them.

  5. jdege: Maybe “abandon”.

  6. [quote]jdege | September 18, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
    Remember – “man” is also a verb. “Man the barricades”.
    What its antonym would be, in that sense, I don’t know.
    Yeah. I’m still waiting until the saying is “Woman the barricades!”… :-)

  7. What is the opposite of man?

    You are!

    Low hanging fruit, my friend.

    — Matt “The Level of Discourse Elevator” Wedel

  8. What is the opposite of man ? Vulcan, of course :) Or possibly HAL 9000. Or half-orc. But not wizard – that’s the opposite of Muggle.

    There are too many contexts in which the word is used (even in English) for a short answer to be possible.

  9. Excellent further suggestions, Kerberos! In the First Age of Middle-earth, in Beleriand, the most obvious opposite of Man would be Elf.

  10. There is not such a thing as the opposite of “man”, though because: boys grow up to be men, woman is the same thing as man but female (we do not say that lions are the opposite of lionesses or time lady the opposite of time lords), humans evolved from animals so men, or at least human men, are animals, robots can look human but any variety of species, and Gods are not the only thing that is immortal- in several legends and stories, humans could and did become gods. And we do not know what gods look like, they could easily be incorporeal or invisible. Or they could take the form of a period of time instead of something tangible.

    A “man” would be defined as an adult male human, or as a physically-adult male humanoid alien or fantasy creature with good intentions. Considered said fantasy-creature or alien could as easily all be sexless with non-binary genders and reproducing by fertilizing space rocks that hatch into other aliens, there really is not an opposite of “man”.

    These aliens could even be totally weird, and have the guys look like funny-looking short-ish humans, and the girls look like land-octopi with no mouth and have futuristic-looking writings on it. And there is a third sex where they all look like gigantic dragons with huge barbels.

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