Coming Back to English Generics

A couple days ago, I wrote:

Why in the world should we be translating generics with a “generic” he or man when even the people who claim that English hasn’t changed accidentally misinterpret English generics as only having a male referent???

Nathan Smith was interested in examples to back up this question

Joel thought such an approach might be valid for familiar phrases, but even then he wouldn’t consider it acceptable.

I agree with Joel – and I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you at all…

As for Nathan, yes, I do have a very prominent example. One that appears in a book that had the major thesis arguing masculine gender generics should always be represented in translation if possible: The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy byVern S. Poythress and Wayne Grudem (you can download it HERE, if you’d like). In this book, Grudem & Poythess in their discussion of ANER, failure to recognize the word “man” from the 19th century as generic even though, in context, it clearly is:

The Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition with Supplement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), gives the following meanings for anēr:

I. man, opposed to woman (anthropoi being man as opposed to beast). II. man, opposed to god. III. man, opposed to youth, unless the context determines the meaning … but anēr alone always means a man in the prime of life, esp. warrior. IV. man emphatically, man indeed. V. husband. VI. Special usages [several idioms are given] (p. 138).

It is significant that neither of these two standard lexicons indicates that the word loses its male marking in any of its usages.  In the present controversy, we should be suspicious of any attempts to overthrow such well-established boundaries to the range of meanings of a word, especially in a time when major forces in the culture are pressing us to eliminate male oriented language (and therefore male markings on words!), and
especially if these attempts are accompanied by no new data, but only appeal to the same old data that scholars have seen for centuries (Page 309).

I’ve bolded the words in question. “Man,” in this case, is generic. If this entry being written today, the sense would most definitely be listed as, “II. human, opposed to god” rather than “man.” But Gruden & Poythress write in their following paragraph as if this instance of “man” is a male referring word rather than a generic. And they are wrong on this point.

So, why do we claim that these sorts of generics are still understandable today, when we don’t understand them today?

Why are they acceptable in translation?

23 thoughts on “Coming Back to English Generics

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    1. I think the discovery of this one originated with Suzanne (, but I don’t remember for sure. I think I had also found it separately later on. Either way, I know that she was first.

  1. “If this entry being written today, the sense would most definitely be listed as, ‘II. human, opposed to god’ rather than ‘man’.”

    Here’s from the 1985 Theological dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 1 by Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, page 35:

    “A. aner outside the NT… 2. It also denotes the human species a. as distinct from fabled monsters or gods and b. in the sense of inhabitants of a place.

    … B. aner in the NT… 2.a. … the main distinction is from spirits or animals. b. This is a common usage either for humans in general, as in Mt. 12:21, or for population of a place, as in Mt. 12:35.”

    1. Thanks for this interesting point. But the references you quote, presumably intended to be Matthew 12:21 and 12:35, are incorrect, as aner doesn’t appear in either verse. Is this the book’s error or yours? What are the correct references, if you know them?

      1. Peter, Thanks for catching my typos! K,F, & B refer to Mt. 14:21 and Mt. 14:35 – respectively:

        21οι δε εσθιοντες ησαν ανδρες ωσει πεντακισχιλιοι χωρις γυναικων και παιδιων

        35και επιγνοντες αυτον οι ανδρες του τοπου εκεινου απεστειλαν εις ολην την περιχωρον εκεινην και προσηνεγκαν αυτω παντας τους κακως εχοντας

        (Upon reading the Greek, it’s harder for me to see “humans in general” for Mt.14:21. Nyland translates the word in 21 as “men” and in 35 as “the locals.” And yet, Mike’s point is that human makers of Greek dictionaries would today use ‘human’ and not ‘man’ as the English contrast with ‘god.’

        1. Thanks, Kurk. These are indeed interesting references. 14:35 can be added to several in Acts where andres refers to all the inhabitants of a place, in a way very unlikely to specify men only. 14:21 in effect confirms that andres was ambiguous in that the author felt the need to explain (in an addition to Mark’s text, and Luke’s, if we accept Markan priority here) that women and children were not included in the number.

  2. I think there’s more than just linguistics at play here but people’s opinions are dominated by their gender beliefs (this coming from a non-linguistic, gender-obsessor). It comes down to:

    *Do you think the archetype of humanity is Man or gender neutral?

    Taking into consideration that most people, phrased this way, have no idea what they believe. When you talk about someone in the abstract or in groups, as in generics, you’re relating to their archetype in the same way we relate to their stereotype.

    If you believe our archetype is Man (Gen 2: Woman based on Man) then you are very comfortable with the generic being man. In that system, even a woman has masculinity in her essence. There’s no conflict with sometimes using masculine terms for women.

    If you believe our archetype is neuter (Gen 1: we are in the image of God, male and female) then masculinity is alien to women and makes no sense to give them a masculine charge. If you put woman and man on the same, neuter footing, you become aware that masculine generics are unequal.

    And whichever you disagree with, you will think sounds sexist and unChristian.

    So here’s a thought experiment to test my belief: If a hypothetical language traditionally used the feminine for generics (“womankind”) should their Bible be translated to retain the common usage (“womankind”) or convert to masculine generics (“mankind”)? If people favoring masculine generics in English answers the former, then I’m proven wrong and their gender beliefs aren’t playing a dominant role. If the latter, I’m right. (But you have to test a person by not revealing the meaning of the answers, lest they game the experiment.)

    Back to the original question, “why do we claim that these sorts of generics are still understandable today?” Because it’s not about being understandable or accurate to the author’s intent or any linguistic merit but for the preservation and propagation of a person’s non-linguistic gender beliefs. They may not say it, they may not even realize it consciously, but it comes down to non-linguistic gender beliefs.

  3. Ephilei, I think this depends on what you mean by “archetype”. Do you mean “ancestor” or “first to exist”? That doesn’t work. Or do you mean “prototype”, which in semantic terms means in effect what would first come to mind when someone asked you to imagine a human being or a person? That’s probably nearer the mark, and probably most people would imagine a man, at least most men would unless they were thinking in sexual terms.

    Yes, I’m sure you’re right that, at least when people express strong feelings on this matter, either way, “it’s not about being understandable or accurate to the author’s intent or any linguistic merit but for the preservation and propagation of a person’s non-linguistic gender beliefs.”

    1. “Archetype” in the Jungian sense, so more like the latter. In mythic narratives like Genesis 1-3 or Plato’s Symposium, the first ancestor is almost always the archetype as well. The archetype is who we are in essence, our most basic and foundational being. Typically, this is who we should seek to refine ourselves to become more fully as we put off the sin which changes us from our archetype. In Christianity, Christ is the archetype even more than Adam and/or Eve. Archetype is that concept in our brains from which the concept of Prototype and mythic ancestor spring.

      Oh, and I’m speaking for myself too. I prefer neuter generics because I’m egalitarian. If I thought gender wasn’t important, I would favor retaining masculine generics because of the author’s intention and cultural context. I favor being accurate over being understandable. It’s that I think God’s view of gender should surpass the erroneous cultural thinking.

      1. Well, Ephilei, I don’t accept your categories taken from unbiblical psychology and “erroneous cultural thinking”, so how can I be expected to decide which category applies? Of course Christians seek to become more fully like Christ, but I don’t think that implies or is supposed to imply that women should seek to become male because Christ was – any more than that Christians of various racial groups should seek to acquire his presumed racial characteristics.

        1. Don’t take too literally that Christ is our archetype. Neither should we attempt to go back in time to the 1st century!

          If you’re talking about Jung, he countered his culture more than following it. But I disagree with your premise that you can’t use psychology that isn’t Christian based. Virtually all psychologists embrace Jung’s idea of archetype. And the father of computing (Turing) was an atheist but that doesn’t stop anyone from using them. And God used the perverted culture and thinking of many people people, even biblical writers, to communicate. I believed in archetypes far before I knew about Jung or knew they were called “archetypes” and I’m Christian. Does that make them Christian categories?

          I agree the gender of Christ can have confusing implications. Historically, Christians saw no problem with saying women should be a lot more like men. Gnostics got around the problem by saying bodily sex (and I presume gender by extension) was evil and Christ didn’t have a body or sex. I think the proper solution is to realize Christ (post-resurrection in a glorified body) was an Androgyne, both/neither male and female, man and woman. Thus, why Mary thought Jesus was a gardnerer and the disciples took so long to recognize Jesus. And more properly, it is the post-resurrection Christ who is our aim (“take up your cross” “must be born again” “die with christ” etc).

          The other solution, which is easier for Christians to swallow, is that gender is as irrelevant as race or living in the 21st century. Thus no need to take on Christ’s gender because it’s peripheral. Personally, I haven’t been able to convince anyone that gender is unimportant.

      2. If I thought gender wasn’t important, I would favor retaining masculine generics because of the author’s intention and cultural context.

        That’s the thing, it wouldn’t really be authorial intention since what is generic was probably determined centuries before the author wrote (if not even earlier) and doesn’t necessarily reflect the author’s choice or the author’s culture.

        1. Good point. The words of NT authors supports an egalitarian intention but I think much of the OT does not. More than we give credit for, but not entirely.

          Further, if God co-authored Scripture, God’s intent is more important than Moses or John or Paul.

  4. Ephilei, I didn’t say that anyone “can’t use psychology that isn’t Christian based”. I have great respect for Jungian psychology. My objection was only to the way your previous comment simply presupposed the correctness of one particular psychological theory.

    The problem with the whole concept you put forward of “archetype” identified with any historic individual is that each individual has irrelevant characteristics which are not part of the archetype. Someone’s archetype might be a particular sportsman, but surely they don’t want to imitate that person’s history of injuries and resulting weakness. Often, but not always, matters like hair and eye colour are irrelevant. Can gender be irrelevant? I’m sure it can in some cases: a man might want to be an author like J.K. Rowling without wanting to become a woman like her! So the male historical Jesus can be women’s archetype without them wanting to become men.

    1. Oh, then why did you bring “unbiblical” into it? Had you simply said, “I don’t buy into Jungian archetypes” I would have understood.

      “The problem with the whole concept you put forward of “archetype” identified with any historic individual is that each individual has irrelevant characteristics which are not part of the archetype.”

      Absolutely, and that was on purpose. Take Michael Jordan, eg, as an archetype. There are actual two “Jordans.” One is the literal Jordan, flesh and blood whose career spanned a limited span, with moles and a wife and kids with a whole life unrelated to sports. Then there’s the archetypical Jordan, who exists in our minds who transcends time, a perfectionist, a teammate, a passionate person, who does not have an identity unrelated to sports, no mole, no wife, etc. The one seeks to become the literal Jordan which would mean kidnapping him and plastic surgery. When Jordan is someone’s archetype, they are talking about the concept of Jordan in their minds. To them, the literal Jordan is (probably unknown to them) irrelevant; only what Jordan sybmoizes to them matters. I’m sure there are white women basketball players who idolize him for him his race and gender mean noting. But I do know there are young, black boys here in Chicago for whom his race and gender are part of the archetype because it of Jordan’s contrast to other black men who symbolize apathy or ordinariness. For Michael’s daughters, he may be the archetypical father and does not symbolize sports at all but love and compassion instead. Thus every Jordan archetype may not be the same, which makes perfect sense because the archetypes live in different minds.

      Most archetypes are not attached to historical people at all: Aslan, Gandalf, comic book super heroes, Paul Bunyan, the mother archetype, the hero archetype, etc. What I think makes Christ and Christianity incredible (well, one thing) is that our ultimate archetype is historical flesh and blood. I have seen many men and some books model manhood using Jesus and women model womanhood on Naomi or Mary.

      My point is, you, Jung, and I already agree.

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