Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

There Should Be a Gold-Man!

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2004

They’ve been having some fun at The Volokh Conspiracy talking about the name Spiderman, and how likely Spiderman is to be Jewish based on his name. This post quotes an email from the host of The Spoons Experience, who says:

I think you should be able to claim Spiderman. After all, it sounds like a Jewish name, doesn’t it? Can you hear it? Federman, Goldman, Grossman, Leiberman, Friedman…

Of course this joke hinges on the two different words that are each spelled ‘man’: [mæn] ‘adult human male’, and [m@n] ‘surname suffix’. (The [@] is the best I can get for a schwa.) It reminds me of this exchange that Glen and Ellen told me about a while back:

Phoebe: Hey! Why isn’t it “Spider[m@n]?” Ya know, like Goldman, or Silverman?
Chandler: It’s not his last name.
Phoebe: It isn’t?
Chandler: No. It’s not like… like “Phil Spiderman”. He’s a spider-man. You know, like, uh, like Goldman is a last name, but there’s no Gold-Man.
Phoebe: Oh, okay! There should be a “Gold-Man!”

As I was thinking about [mæn] vs. [m@n], though, I wondered: Why is the occupation suffix –man pronounced both ways, depending on the occupation? With [mæn], we have mailman, milkman, handyman, etc., but with [m@n], we have postman, chairman, policeman, etc. And some, like doorman or hangman, seem to be pronounced both ways. Or in any case, I can’t decide which way I say them.

4 Responses to “There Should Be a Gold-Man!”

  1. Anonymous said

    I say postmaen.

    My guess: the terms entered the language a different times, when slightly different rules applied. But I think that most speakers understand these words as X + maen (“adult human male”) except for chairman, chair + man doesn’t make sense to most people. Proof: we are uncomfortable applying the terms to women.

    David Boxenhorn

  2. Neal said

    The origin of the different pronunciations sounds reasonable, and you’re definitely right about the ‘adult human male’ meaning persisting (at least to some extent) in the occupational-suffix-‘man’. In fact, I think my problem in deciding on a pronunciation for a few of them is because people just don’t say them that much anymore because of the sexist-language concerns. But I still think the occupational suffix -‘man’ should be distinguished from the free-standing word ‘man.’ I would just say that its separate meaning still includes the original meaning of “adult human male”, and just adds to it the new meaning, so that it would be more accurately paraphrased as “suffix indicating a person, usually a man, having a particular occupation.”

  3. […] while the man in salesman is pronounced /mən/? I don’t know, but since I’ve already written about that, I won’t dwell on it here.) Of course, I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Doug […]

  4. JD said

    Here in England, it’s common to say ‘milkman’ with the schwa sound. And we say ‘postman’, not ‘mailman’, again with the schwa sound. ‘Doorman’, in my experience, also always has the schwa. Spiderman and handyman still get the [ae], though: the former because he’s an American creation, the latter perhaps because it sounds more harmonious to have the double [ae]? Just a guess…

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