The Universe of Discourse
Fri, 08 May 2009

Most annoying phrase known to man?
I have been wasting time, those precious minutes of my life that will never return, by eliminating the odious phrase "known to man" from Wikipedia articles. It is satisfying, in much the same way as doing the crossword puzzle, or popping bubble wrap.

In the past I have gone on search-and-destroy missions against certain specific phrases, for example "It should be noted that...", which can nearly always be replaced with "" with no loss of meaning. But "known to man" is more fun.

One pleasant property of this phrase is that one can sidestep the issue of whether "man" is gender-neutral. People on both sides of this argument can still agree that "known to man" is best replaced with "known". For example:

  • The only albino gorilla known to man...
  • The most reactive and electronegative substance known to man...
  • Copper and iron were known to man well before the copper age and iron age...
In examples like these, "to man" is superfluous, and one can delete it with no regret.

As a pleonasm and a cliché, "known to man" is a signpost to prose that has been written by someone who was not thinking about what they were saying, and so one often finds it amid other prose that is pleonastic and clichéd. For example:

Diamond ... is one of the hardest naturally occurring material known (another harder substance known today is the man-made substance aggregated diamond nanorods which is still not the hardest substance known to man).
Which I trimmed to say:

Diamond ... is one of the hardest naturally-occurring materials known. (Some artificial substances, such as aggregated diamond nanorods, are harder.)
Many people ridicule Strunk and White's fatuous advice to "omit needless words"—if you knew which words were needless, you wouldn't need the advice—but all editors know that beginning writers will use ten words where five will do. The passage above is a good example.

Can "known to man" always be improved by replacement with "known"? I might have said so yesterday, but I mentioned the issue to Yaakov Sloman, who pointed out that the original use was meant to suggest a contrast not with female knowledge but with divine knowledge, an important point that completely escaped my atheist self. In light of this observation, it was easy to come up with a counterexample: "His acts descended to a depth of evil previously unknown to man" partakes of the theological connotations very nicely, I think, and so loses some of its force if it is truncated to "... previously unknown". I suppose that many similar examples appear in the work of H. P. Lovecraft.

It would be nice if some of the Wikipedia examples were of this type, but so far I haven't found any. The only cases so far that I haven't changed are all direct quotations, including several from the introductory narration of The Twilight Zone, which asserts that "There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man...". I like when things turn out better than I expected, but this wasn't one of those times. Instead, there was one example that was even worse than I expected. Bad writing it may be, but the wrongness of "known to man" is at least arguable in most cases. (An argument I don't want to make today, although if I did, I might suggest that "titanium dioxide is the best whitening agent known to man" be rewritten as "titanium dioxide is the best whitening agent known to persons of both sexes with at least nine and a half inches of savage, throbbing cockmeat.") But one of the examples I corrected was risibly inept, in an unusual way:

Wonder Woman's Amazon training also gave her limited telepathy, profound scientific knowledge, and the ability to speak every language known to man.
I have difficulty imagining that the training imparted to Diana, crown princess of the exclusively female population of Paradise Island, would be limited to languages known to man.

Earle Martin drew my attention to the Wikipedia article on "The hardest metal known to man". I did not dare to change this.

[ Addendum 20090515: There is a followup article. ]

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