As It Happens

Justin Trudeau not the 1st person to say 'peoplekind,' word expert says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was derided by British pundit Piers Morgan as "a spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist" after he used the word.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a town hall meeting in Edmonton on Thursday, where he corrected a female audience member's use of the word 'mankind' to 'peoplekind.' (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)
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Story transcript

At a recent Edmonton town hall event, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau corrected a female audience member's use of the word "mankind," substituting "peoplekind." And now all of peoplekind has an opinion about it. 

The prime minister was responding to a question on Thursday night about "the future of mankind," when he responded, "We like to say peoplekind ... because it's more inclusive."

Although he was applauded at the event, Trudeau's comment was not so well-received everywhere. He was roundly mocked in conservative media for "mansplaining," and British columnist Piers Morgan wrote a column with the headline "How dare you kill off mankind, Mr Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist."

On Tuesday, Trudeau's spokesperson Cameron Ahmad declined to comment on the backlash, calling the prime minister a "proud feminist." But on Wednesday Trudeau told reporters the line was a "dumb joke."

Justin Trudeau says his use of the word "peoplekind" has gone viral, and not for the right reason. Trudeau admits his track record on jokes isn't good. 0:33

To help make sense of the prime minister's gender-neutral turn of phrase, As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Katherine Barber, author of Only In Canada You Say: A Treasury of Canadian Language and The Word Lady blog. Here is part of their conversation. 

First of all, is peoplekind a word? 

Well, some people have used it. It's not a word that's in common parlance, I can say that. But it's not cut-and-dried whether something is a word or not. 

Have you heard it before? 

I had not heard it before this, but I went and looked for evidence of it and did find some.

So Mr. Trudeau did not make it up. Where else have you seen peoplekind?

Well, actually, I found a quite early one in 1988 in a book about non-sexist writing. And this book was actually quoting someone else, saying, "Well, obviously peoplekind will never catch on." But the person who wrote the actual book that I read said, "Well, of course we can't say that it will never catch on. We don't know. It may." You can't predict things with a language like that.

Is that the only reference you've seen to peoplekind in all these decades?

No, I found other ones. I found one in a letter-to-the-editor in 2004, I think it was in The Edmonton Journal. Anyway, it was in a Canadian newspaper. I mean, they are very few and far between, this evidence. But it's out there. So, he definitely didn't invent it.

Let's just talk about "mankind," because that was the issue of the evening, that someone dared to utter "change the future of mankind." What's the problem with "mankind" from the point of view of Mr. Trudeau? 

Well, the thing is that "man" originally — way back in old English — man meant human beings. But then it took on this new sense of specifically male human beings. And that has become by far the dominant sense of "man." And if you look, for instance. I looked in one Oxford dictionary where they had quite a lengthy usage note, saying you may want to avoid "man" and "mankind" — they specifically say this, because it has come to be considered sexist. And so they suggest other things, like "human race," "humanity" and so on. 

Do people object strenuously to these kinds of changes? 

Some people do. I think people who have a bit of a political agenda, they get very upset and hot under the collar and say this is political correctness. But I think what some people condemn as political correctness is just actually a sensitivity to the other people that we encounter every day and a desire to be inclusive. And I don't see what's wrong with that. 

And the prime minister had a big cheer when he did use that term peoplekind.

Yes. 

But the British pundit Piers Morgan, he wrote a column in London's Daily Mail trashing Justin Trudeau for this, saying, "How dare you kill off mankind, Mr. Trudeau, you spineless virtue-signalling excuse for a feminist." Ouch. 

Well, you know, if we have to choose one side of the debate or the other, I'm with Justin Trudeau. 

Do we really have to say peoplekind? Because it does sound kind of awkward.

When you say peoplekind sounds awkward, we always have that reaction to new words. There was a big backlash in the 16th century because there were a bunch of Latin words that came into English. And there were people ranting and railing saying, these words will never survive in the English language, why do we need a word like "excellent" and "alphabet" anyway? So people always have a reaction to new words. And some of them survive and some of them don't. 

So eventually peoplekind will roll off my tongue quite smoothly, then? 

It may well do. There's no way of knowing. 

This transcript has been condensed and edited. For more on this story, listen to our interview with Katherine Barber.