A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Unmanned and Uninhabited

The Earth & Sky transcripts expands the UAV acronym to ‘uninhabited aerial vehicle;’ in our research, we typically use ‘unmanned aeriel vehicle.’ Google reports only about 54 kGhits for ‘uninhabited aerial vehicle,’ and 704 kGhits for ‘unmanned aerial vehicle‘. Yahoo reports 46.6 and 907 kGhits (kYhits?), respectively. Is it being sexist to use ‘unmanned’ when it refers to the absence of a pilot? Well, of course it is.

3 responses to “Unmanned and Uninhabited

  1. Daniel Lemire January 4, 2006 at 9:14 pm

    I don’t have an English dictionary nearby, but is it possible you confuse the roots? To me, “unmanned” refers to “without hands” from the latin “manual”.

    As in “doing it manually” as opposed to “having it done automatically”.

  2. Natalia January 6, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    And here I was thinking the aircraft had started weeping, watching Lifetime, and otherwise calling its manliness into question.

    Actually, OED supports Will’s etymology, linking unmanned to the verb “to man,” whose etymology is Germanic.

    OED provides a qualification, however:

    The spelling mained in quot. 1632 at sense 9, if not a misprint, seems intended to suggest derivation from French main hand.
    Although (esp. in early use) not necessarily gender-specific, the senses in Branch I. may be considered objectionable by people who relate them to man in the sense ‘adult male’ rather than in the senses ‘human’ or ‘person’, and who thus believe that they exclude women.

    I.e., I suppose, German “Man” is cognate to “homo,” whereas “Mann” is cognate to “vir”; hence “Man” as a root is gender-neutral (at least in theory).

  3. Will January 6, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks, Natalia — I wish I still had online access to the OED. Your argument wins the day (insert mano a mano joke here). And we must remember that main is a feminine noun in French, as is mano in Spanish.

    After several days, I (and my friends and relations) haven’t been able to think of a better alternative to ‘unmanned’ than ‘uninhabited;’ of the two, ‘unmanned’ still captures the basic idea–there is no human pilot in the aircraft. The pilot doesn’t ‘inhabit’ the aircraft, he or she ‘mans’ in–i.e., operates it in situ. Remote control aircraft are interestingly ‘unmanned’ in this sense; but in no case does a pilot ‘inhabit’ an aircraft. So, I’m sticking to ‘unmanned’ until something better comes along, despite its admittedly sexist connotations.

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