God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

More Thoughts About Gender

Last week, I presented some theory about gender (first here and then here). Recent posts (from Damian Caruana on the lack of feminine language for Jesus, for example) show the issue is still on people’s minds.

To complement my theory-oriented introduction last week, here are three examples to think about:

  • Lord. Most modern English speakers think of “lord,” and, therefore, “Lord” (and “LORD”) as masculine. The term comes from British society, and though most lords were and are men, the word is actually gender neutral. So when Dame Mary Donaldson became mayor of London, her title was “The Right Honourable Lord Mayor.” Similarly, a woman who owned a manor was the “lord of the manor.” (The English word “Lord” was used to translate the Greek kurios, that Greek word being the most common representation in the LXX of the Hebrew tetragrammaton [yud-heh-vav-heh].)

    Which is more important: the common (masculine) understanding of the word or the (gender-neutral) technical definition?

  • President. There is no inherent gender in the English word “president,” and, as the word relates to positions in companies, both men and women are called “president.” Yet in the United States, we have yet to have a woman serve as president, so the term “President of the United States” has so far applied only to men.

    Which is more important: the de facto (masculine) use of the word, or the potential (gender netural) use?

  • Almighty. This is a fascinating one. The Hebrew, El Shaddai is one of those phrases that no one can agree on. The first word clearly means “God.” The second one is anyone’s guess. (The LXX tends not to translate it at all.) Curiously, the word sounds like it could be connected to “breasts.” (It also sounds like it could come from “plunder” or “demon.”)

    What are we to make of this vague connection?

September 13, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , , ,


  1. Joel, as a Brit I can assure you that “Lord” is not gender neutral in most cases. A female members of the House of Lords is not a lord but a lady, or a baroness (the men are technically “baron”, except for the few who have higher titles like “earl” or “duke”). The title “Lord” is used only of men. You may be right about “Lord Mayor” and “lord of the manor”, but to me it sounds very strange to use them of women.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 13, 2009

    • Peter,

      I think your reaction demonstrates my point. Technically the word is gender neutral. But when people hear the word, they think of men; and it does sound strange to hear “lord” applied to women.

      When Dame Mary Donaldson insisted on the title “lord,” reactions were decidedly mixed.

      (And by the way, let us note that the “House of Lords” now contains women, even though most people don’t call the women “lords.” This inconsistency shows us yet again how complicated the interaction between gender and language can be.)

      Comment by Joel | September 13, 2009

  2. Its only been recently that gender in Biblical translation has moved onto the stage, where its visable to me. I’ve never thought about a word having “potential (gender netural) use?” As the English language changes and morphs, I’m sure doors will be opened for the potential other use of a lot of words.

    BTW, under your post where the “Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)” are displayed, a post titled the “The F-Word” came up…. 🙂

    Comment by A.Admin | September 13, 2009

    • I think nearly all languages have a way of expressing things in a gender neutral way. In English, it used to “man”/”he”/etc. (and it still is is some dialects). And I agree that language morphs. When “man” ceased to be gender neutral, “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun became popular.

      Comment by Joel | September 13, 2009

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