God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Clayboy has a short post in which he describes an experiment he ran. He told an audience, “I like to ask my fellow men to stand.” Only the men stood.

This is pretty convincing evidence that, at least where he was, “men” doesn’t mean “men and women.”

I wonder if there is any context in which the women would have stood, too.

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November 15, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , ,

9 Comments »

  1. “fellow men” pretty clearly means those men who are his fellows, that is, of the same gender. If he had said, “I’d like to ask all men in this room to stand,” the results of that experiment would have bearing on the question.

    Comment by David Hamstra | November 15, 2009 | Reply

    • I’m not sure I understand. You’re saying that “fellow” means “same gender,” so even though “all men” is inclusive, it’s the word “fellow” that limits the meaning of the phrase?

      Comment by Joel H. | November 15, 2009 | Reply

      • Exactly. Though I’m not saying that “all men” is necessarily gender inclusive. But that would be the expression to use to test whether the audience considers the word “men” to be gender inclusive. However, I suspect the results would be the same.

        Comment by David Hamstra | November 15, 2009

  2. Only the men stood because the audience is presumably consisted of men and women, and hence they’d presume he’s trying to distinguish men from women.

    If the audience were consisted of human beings and other beings, the understanding would be different, wouldn’t it?

    Comment by Pat Scott | November 15, 2009 | Reply

    • It’s an interesting point, and I guess we’d have to try it to find out. Asking only the humans to stand wouldn’t make much sense, but I can imagine a household with dogs, cats, men, women, boys, and girls. I wonder if “make sure all the men are in the living room” would most naturally include the women (as opposed to the cats).

      Comment by Joel H. | November 15, 2009 | Reply

  3. Perhaps I should point out some context. The congregation where I said this prayed at least once a week: “We have sinned against you and against our fellow men”. Many claimed that the phrase *obviously* meant women as well.

    I agree that was the original meaning and intention. I wished to demonstrate to them than in everyday English it was not the normal meaning.

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | November 15, 2009 | Reply

  4. It seems to me that this whole discussion is ignoring the importance of context.

    In a room of men and women, if a male speaker asks “all my fellow men” to stand, everyone is able to determine what he means by context—that is, the fact that he didn’t say “I’d like everyone to stand up” or something similar demonstrates that “man” in this context was intended to distinguish between two groups: men and women.

    But the same group of people would hear “all men are created equal in the sight of God” and know that the meaning differs in that context, because there is no clear indicator that the word is used in its distinguishing function.

    Everyone involved in this discussion knows enough about language to understand the importance of context in determining meaning (words don’t have meaning—words in context have meaning), but it seems that on somewhat political issues like this one such things are sometimes forgotten on both sides.

    Comment by Jason A. Staples | November 16, 2009 | Reply

  5. Jason:

    Context is always important. So it’s possible that”

    the same group of people would hear “all men are created equal in the sight of God” and know that the meaning differs in that context, because there is no clear indicator that the word is used in its distinguishing function.

    However, it’s equally possible that they wouldn’t immediately think of “all people.”

    As a guess, people who already know that it means “all people” will hear that meaning in those words, but people who hear the phrase for the first time will think only of the men.

    Other people probably have other guesses.

    I would think that the issue is important enough that someone should do a few simple experiments and find out.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] and perhaps offend even more. The issue (which has been addressed frequently — recently by me here and here, by Clayboy, Bill Mounce, and many others) is whether (orwhen) the English word […]

    Pingback by Do All Men Experience Pain in Childbirth? « God Didn't Say That | December 7, 2009 | Reply


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