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The Plural of Shaman is not Shamen

As a person who is perhaps a bit more picky about the correct usage of the right word, but aware that I am that way, I often restrain myself from remarking publicly on grammatical and spelling errors and word misusages. Even though I whole-heartedly agree with Mark Twain, who once said something like, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning," still yet I also know that one needs to allow others their own path; in short, cut them some slack. (Twain quotes here.)

However, I have seen one misapprehension that is proliferating in the New Age community, and I would like to put my two cents' worth in an attempt to correct it, however futile this attempt may be.

The misapprehension I speak of is that the word "shaman" is composed of the words "sha" + "man," and that therefore the plural of shaman is shamen. Some have even taken the next (and unfortunately predictable) step, and have started to refer to shawomen. [muffled exclamation here]

In case you haven't heard the word before, a shaman is a person who acts as an intermediary between the normal world and the world of spirit. A shaman normally practices "magic or sorcery for purposes of healing, divination, and control over natural events." —http://www.dictionary.com. In short, a shaman is a medicine man or woman.

The word shaman is a Russian word, eventually going back to the Sanskrit, and the proper English plural is shamans. (Here's the full treatment of its roots from dictionary.com, "Russian, from Tungus šaman, Buddhist monk, shaman, from Tocharian B samane, monk, from Prakrit samana, from Sanskrit sramanah, from srá­ˇh, religious exercise.")

This new usage of shaman, pl. shamen smacks of the sarcasm that was rampant in the 1970s. As feminism flowered, there was a backlash against it, and some people started to say that, as long as the feminists were replacing every instance of "man" and "male," then, to be truly politically correct, one should not refer to the person who delivers our mail as a mail carrier, because that was sexist; instead one should refer to the mail carrier as a person carrier.

Of course, this was a ridiculous argument, and was meant to be so; it originally was intended to criticize the feminists, whom some people thought were going too far. Although "mail" and "male" do sound alike, they do not mean the same thing, and those who originally proposed this "correction" knew this full well. (Not that there is any great wit to saying that mail and male mean the same thing.)

And yet, and yet—! Some feminists who were seriously humor- and sarcasm-impaired took up the cry in earnest—"Mail carrier is a sexist pig term!" The long and the short of it is that the US Post Office bowed to pressure from these unfortunates and changed the term to letter carrier, which is okay but not truly correct, as that person carries a lot more than letters. But there I quibble.

Anyway, back to shaman. There isn't much more to say, or there is far too much. I could go on to speak of the verbal crimes perpetrated upon the world by the self-righteous and unthinking politically correct, but I will womanfully restrain myself. (And don't even get me started on the incorrect "wholistic"! The correct word is "holistic." Some ill-educated person in the 1970s, not realizing that the word "holistic" means dealing with the whole, thought that the "h" was needed to indicate that "whole" was meant. Please, please, dear God, spare me. [long pause for effect] I blame television, really.)

Just remember, the next time you hear or use the word shaman and you want to refer to more than one of them, the proper plural is shamans.


Thanks for the history or herstory of the word shaman, but that's all it may be (as opposed to a treatise for those of us that are less enlightened than yourself). As language can be considered an organic entity in that the meanings of words shift and change with usage (you may call it ignorant usage but so what), the word shaman may indeed transmute to shamen or shawomen through enough practice. Rather lovely, I think. Perhaps we can just let it be and attend to more important matters?

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