“Of gods and men”

I’m going to have a little gripe here for a bit.

I was teaching on the new translation of the liturgy the other night, and just having a little grumble about the line: “and on earth peace to people of good will”.

It would have been so much nicer if we could have had (as I believe the original translation during the 1960’s actually had it) “and on earth peace to men of good will.”

But the language police tell us we can’t do that anymore.

Okay. But that leaves a bit of a lacuna in our language, doesn’t it? The Gloria in Excelsis uses the word “homo” for those who are on earth over against the word “Deus” for him (or her?) what’s up in heaven. We need a word for that which we folk here on earth ARE that distinguishes us over against GOD. Several proposed solutions just don’t cut the mustard.

1) “Human” isn’t a noun. It’s an adjective. I am “human” because I am a “human being”. “Human being” = belonging to the species “homo sapiens”, as compared to belonging to the species “Felis catus” or “Rattus rattus” or even “Homo neanderthalensis”. I don’t want to sing about “peace to human beings”…

2) “People” are “them”. You know, the ones who “say” or “think” things. They’re just people. I hear that even dogs are “people” to some people. But that’s just people for you.

3) The NRSV likes to use the word “mortal”. But that just means someone who is going to die. Even dogs, cats and rats are “mortals”.

You see, we have thrown out the perfectly servicable word “men” (as in “for us men” – ie. not for just us Christians nor for all us creatures) or even “man” (as in “became man”) for something that just doesn’t function in the same way.

Think how easily we still use the term “man-made”, to mean “not naturally occuring”, ie. not “God-made”. Think about how we say that Neil Armstrong was “the first man on the moon”. Yes, I know that he was male, but what we mean is that he was the first member of the human race to set foot on the moon (“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”, would have sounded dreadful as “One small step for a person, one giant leap for people”). Think even of the recent successful French film “Des hommes et des dieux”, which was given the English title “Of Gods and Men”. No one batted an eyelid at that.

So it’s still there in our language. It hasn’t entirely gone away. We could revive it if were were determined.

If we can’t revive “men”/”man” to serve the purpose of saying what we are collectively over against the Deity, can we invent a new word to do the job properly? I have been wondering about whether we could borrow something from German, eg. “mann”. Or perhaps a differently pronounced “men”, such as “mun”? I don’t know.

Or we could just be stubborn and go on using the “sexist” language anyway in the hope that one day sense will reign once more…

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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31 Responses to “Of gods and men”

  1. Stephen K says:

    David, I think your gripe is misplaced, really. Look, sometimes, “man” or “men” conveys a gravitas or sounds a rhythm “people” doesn’t, but in the scheme of things, is the “people” in the Gloria really a pebble in the shoe? The point behind having people “of good will” rather than “men” is because, whether one likes it or not, the latter has now assumed an exclusive nuance – especially when linked to “of good will” – in addition to the older generic one. Once people start thinking about a meaning, you cannot put the genie back in the bottle.

    This is perhaps a case where linguistic and poetic nicety might really need to be subordinate to theological and linguistic sensitivity. Otherwise, a gripe like this begins to sound like antiquarianism or pedantry. Sorry but that’s how it strikes me. (And I am normally in favour of metrical quality in language.)

    • Schütz says:

      Antiquarian? Pedant? Moi? :-)

      But you have properly grasped part of my gripe – ie. the awkward scanning of “people”. It isn’t a poetic word, it destroys the rhythm of the piece. I know I am being unreasonable, but sometimes, just sometimes, can’t poetry and gravitas trump political correctness and communication?

      • Stephen K says:

        Ah, David, you know how to soften up a bloke, don’t you? Yes, of course, none of these things should be absolute, and poetry and gravitas should take precedence sometimes. I guess it is a question of the “instinctive sense of fit for the circumstance” that it comes down to.

        But, you know, the argument for rhythm can also trump an argument for things like accuracy. The recent criticisms of the familiar ICEL English of the Mass drew their main ammunition from the arsenals of (a) accuracy and (b) theology and I suspect (c) an identification of “sacredness” with Latinate forms. Now, one of the targets was the 3rd Eucharistic prayer “from age to age you gather a people to yourself…so that from east to west a perfect offering may be made…etc” This example was, to my ears, a perfectly balanced and rhythmic rendition in modern vernacular, and the ICEL translation was in this sense a whole, that could not be improved with occasional tampering where the offspring becomes one of mixed parentage, so to speak. (Far better, in my view, for ritual forms to be pure – of whatever variety – than hybrid. Simplicity lends its own grace, which is why I prefer plainchant to the baroque).

        The other point I’d make is that unfortunately “political correctness” has become a very wide-reach pejorative. I’d like to suggest that being sensitive by using one form rather than another is very often grounded in genuine rejection of a notion and simply….sensitive, which in context is a virtue. Before there was such a thing as a legislated eight hour day, many people thought nothing of pushing workers day after day in exhausting labour; or before the racial discrimination legislation, many people thought nothing of rejecting applicants on the basis of prejudice. The insistence on these problems would have – if the term had then been invented – fit into “political correctness”, but in fact they were genuine convictions about situations. There have been excellent essays on the question of the “invisibility” of women through the use of male forms in everyday language. “Man” and “he” are some of them. And one can take affirmative action and be a traditionalist at the same time by not using “Man” in places where you clearly mean both – and insisting on using “actress”, not “actor” when referring to Kate Winslet.

        My goodness! What a delicious discussion language always stimulates!

        • Schütz says:

          On the third Eucharistic Prayer, I agree the old translation had a nice rhythm, but it was a bit “dum-te-dum-te-dum”. The new translation still has a good rhythm, but it is just that bit more interesting:

          “so that from the rising of the sun to its setting
          a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name.”

  2. PM says:

    The problem is that English is a blunt instrument in this respect. It lacks the distinctions in Latin and Greek between homo and vir or anthropos and aner. But I’m afraid I can’t offer a ready solution.

    There is another linguistic oddity which intrudes into the liturgy wars. Both ‘conservatives’ (approvingly) and ‘progressives’ (disapprovingly) often seem to assume that thee, thou and thine are hieratic, formal words. In origin if not in present use, they are signs of familiarity and intimacy to be used with family, close friends and lovers – as tu and du still are in the romance languages and German respectively. (Address a Frenchman or a German you barely know as tu or du and wait for the frosty look.) To call God thee is akin to Jesus’s addressing the Father as Abba, rather than grovelling self-abasement.

    As my school Latin teacher used to remark, English can be very woolly and illogical. (He also got into trouble once for saying that Italian is only debased Latin, but that’s another story.)

  3. Jim Ryland says:

    PM makes a point that is all but lost, and certainly misconstrued, in our modern linguistic culture. We also have a problem with academic Latin scholars who take a stab at the very evocative form of Liturgical Latin.

    David, you may have hit on a “band-aid” with your use of the word “mankind”

  4. CG says:

    There is good patristic support for the alternative reading: en anthrõpois eudokia = goodwill among (or to) men. But that doesn’t solve your ‘political correctness’ problem, although ‘to all men’ somehow seems more inclusive than just ‘to men’ and gives a better rhythm, as does the BCP ‘good will towards men’.

    • Schütz says:

      The difficulty from our point of view – and this applies to other texts such as the Credo – is that we are translating the Latin Rite – and this means that we have to translate “bonae voluntatis” not Luke 1:24 in the Greek text.

  5. John Nolan says:

    ‘Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.’ ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ This lapidary English version was used prior to Vatican II and cannot be bettered. Can we not spell out to the feminists that the word ‘man’ in English, without the definite or indefinite article, means ‘men and women’? It’s not as if they were consistent themselves. They complain at the masculine including the feminine yet when a feminine equivalent exists, e.g. authoress, poetess, priestess, or even actress, they insist on the masculine. In German the feminine suffix -in is added to all professions and trades, so you even have ‘Soldatin’. However, not even the Germans are immune from linguistic PC; girls over 16 are referred to as ‘Frau’, whether married or not.

    French is probably the language most immune from PC distortions. In English the habit of using the possessive pronoun ‘their’ after a singular noun is simply ungrammatical; and although ‘his or her’ is legitimate when referring to a specific group of people, e.g. the pupils in a mixed school, it is otiose and tiresome when used in contexts that everyone knows include both sexes, e.g. politicians or barristers. In these cases the masculine pronoun may stand for both.

    • Stephen K says:

      This relates to what David has pleaded and I have acknowledged, namely the place and power of metrical language. I can’t myself think of a better version of this Ash Wednesday saying. And I agree that, superficially, there is often inconsistency. But I think the reason behind the modern adoption of only some masculine forms where a feminine one exists, such as “waitress”, “actress”, “authoress”, may be because these are interpreted – rightly or wrongly – as equivalent to diminutives or of a lower class, rather than feminines. Remember how in generations past “actress” was a euphemism for “loose girl” or “prostitute”? “Authoress” might be seen as a put-down etc. (By contrast, feminine forms such as “duchess” or “countess” survive because the masculine forms cannot convey a neutral meaning for the woman.) And forms like “aviatrix” are probably just off the vocabulary radar as out-dated.

      But this only highlights that at the crux of this issue is perceived meaning not just dictionary definition. A solemn, resonant Ash Wednesday admonition intoned once a year does not impose the ambiguity and/or invisibility of a masculine pronoun or noun repeated everywhere else every day or week. No element – whether music, rhythm or social meaning or technical accuracy – can claim rightful priority ALL the time. Language is living and its development, in terms of meaning, usage and form, is inevitably inconsistent and involves subtleties. There are thus different considerations for different contexts.

      • Schütz says:

        Actually, it isn’t just the metre of this Ash Wednesday ritual that is significant here (and I think it should be “Remember, O man, that…”); it actually perfectly illustrates the use of the word “man” over against the word “god”. This passage is refering to our nature as sons and daughters of Adam. Actually that raises another good point: the word “Adam” in hebrew (translated “earthling” by one biblical commentator because it comes from the hebrew for “earth”) is what I am getting at with the word “man” in English. Perhaps I could have a go at using the word “adam” for “man”, and perhaps “adem” for “men”.

        Let’s see…

        “Remember, Adam, that you are dust…”? I think that works.

        “And on earth peace to adem of good will”… that doesn’t.

        “And became adam” … interesting…

        “For us adem and for our salvation”. Again, interesting…

  6. John Nolan says:

    Stephen, after reading your comment I am more convinced than ever that only Latin is suitable for the liturgy of the Western Church. It should also be the lingua franca of the European Union. In the meantime I shall persist in using the Queen’s English, untainted by what is vulgarly and erroneously referred to as ‘gender politics’. Fowler, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

    • Stephen K says:

      There’s a lot of merit in what you say, John, but only if Latin remains in an ossified state. Because I’m guessing that it is the instability of a living language that causes you to cherish Latin. Once it approaches becoming a vernacular, it will begin to suffer the same kind of problems, I’d surmise. So maybe it ought to be kept confined to the sanctuaries, and left out of the hands of politicians!

  7. Susan Peterson says:

    My opinon is roughly that of John Nolan, and I thought the new translation was going to be free of such nonsense. I am bitterly disappointed. In the Ruthenian rite we now have ” Who loves us all” at the very conclusion of our liturgy, rather than “Who loves mankind.” Some folks have gone to the Ukrainians…or even to Orthodoxy, over this. I admit I could go Ukrainian where I am, but it took me three years to be really accepted in the Ruthenian parish, and the Ukrainian one is reputed to be even more ethnic. And I made a solemn vow concerning the Pope when I became Catholic, so not going Orthodox unless God knocks me off my horse with a private revelation….

    But I hate “who loves us all”. I insist firmly that “men” = people or human beings. Where I went to college, I wrote papers with phrases like “men say” and was not referring to gender issues. I was happy to see that my daughter did the same thing there ten years ago!

    I also did it while in state university nursing school sometimes, just to rile up folks.
    As much as my grades could stand. And if I ever must return to Gather hymnal land ( a very bad hymnal, which even makes the second stanza of ‘Faith of our Fathers’ say ‘Faith of our Mothers’) I sing “I will raise him up” rather than the substitute “I will raise you up” which is not what scripture says.

    Even worse for the language I think is this bit of using “their” to refer to a singular subject if the sex/gender of the subject is not known, the way Facebook does. “Susan added two pictures to their album.” Argh! Screeching fingernails on the chalkboard!

    We let this get put over on us, more fools we. But I thought, per Chesterton I think, that the Catholic Church was supposed to free us from the degrading slavery of being children of our times. He probably said it frees *one* from the degrading slavery of being a child of *his* times.

    I guess not.
    Susan Peterson

  8. Susan Peterson says:

    I hope “the Queen’s English” is not so much a losing battle as Latin as the common language of the European Union….

  9. Susan Peterson says:

    The thing about the “living language” idea is that this did not come about by the normal pattern of language change. No, it is more akin to the way the Novus Ordo was concocted versus the slow organic development of a liturgy. It was introduced and pushed by a cabal of academic feminists and accepted by and made standard by a crowd of lemming like liberal journalists. This all happened completely within my lifetime; such a radical change in language could surely not happen so quickly.
    Susan Peterson

  10. John Nolan says:

    The trouble with English is that there is no body like the French Academie to police it, and ignorant and sloppy usage soon finds its way into the Oxford Dictionary which is desperate to keep up with modern trends. If people say ‘barbaric’ when they mean ‘barbarous’, or use ‘discriminate’ in a purely pejorative sense they are impoverishing one of the most nuanced languages in the world. We all have our pet hates; mine is ‘three times more’ instead of the correct ‘three times as much’ and the even more meaningless ‘three times less’ when it should be ‘a third as much’.

    • Stephen K says:

      Please believe me when I say I am emotionally sympathetic to these posts urging some kind of purity. Believe me, I’m a linguistic romanticist! But language is dynamic and intimately tied to meaning. Just because you don’t like some meanings will not stem the natural organic process. I am not arguing monolithic mediocrity, simply the futility and invalidity of trying to exercise linguistic control.

      • Schütz says:

        I think what gets up our noses is that this development in the meaning of language has been completely orchestrated. As Susan said, it represents a rupture rather than an organic, living development. It is not language operating as it naturally should, but the result of clear ideological campaign to change the meaning of the words themselves irrespective of their ancient roots, and by that process depriving our language of certain key concepts and ideas (which may indeed have been the point of the attack in the first place). It is rather like having a verbal rug pulled out from under one’s feet.

        • Stephen K says:

          David, I can see the point of both sides. It sounds sort of right or nice that things be organic and develop or change semi-spontaneously but isn’t it true that people everywhere make deliberate, often exponential changes to language and law, for example, to achieve particular purposes they see as desirable? The new translation of the Mass might be considered every bit as an affirmative action as the old ICEL. So, perhaps the process is not intrinsically bad, and we simply consider whether the changes are good or not for other reasons. Are they clearer? Do they convey positive more beneficial ideas? Etc. The deletion of some of the ideas by the process of deliberate agenda may rightly be lamented, the deletion of others arguably not.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, actually, there are language police in English – they have no official standing, but they seem pretty well all-powerful…

  11. Susan Peterson says:

    Stephen K- the change to gender neutral language was not a natural organic process at all. It was conceived in feminist academia and slavish lemming liberals brought it to birth by adopting it as the standard for journalism. It did not come from below , from the natural change of language, at all. It was a direct attack on the English language, a successful coup, by a very small group.
    Susan Peterson

  12. Susan Peterson says:

    And your argument way above about “sensitivity”. Please. Oh yes, the use of “mankind” was an injury to women, just like making blacks drink from separate water fountains, or sunrise to sunset factory labor. Yeah, right. I am a woman, I was a young adult when all this started to change. Believe me, there was no offense to me when I read ” All men by nature desire to know” and it never occurred to me that I was excluded from the category “all men.” When I went to the Byzantine Church and heard “For He is gracious and loves mankind” did I say, “What about me, doesn’t He love me also?” Never occurred to me. I bet it never occurred to a single one of the woman of that parish, who have been hearing these words (early in their lives they heard them in Church Slavonic) all their lives.

    By the way, by sitting commenting on this post I stayed too late to go to the Byzantine Rite and had to go to Haugen and Haas land. ( A Latin rite parish, fairly conservative except for the execrable music.) And guess what they sang “And I will rai aise “you” up” I had to think hard to remember just how all the stanzas used to go back in the 70’s before the political correctness gender neutral plague struck. But I sang out “I will raise HIM up” .

    It occurred to me that I should go look at the Greek. I am pretty sure though, that it doesn’t say “you.”
    Susan Peterson

    • Stephen K says:

      So, Susan, in essence you’re arguing that because you’re not offended, no-one else is or should be? Do you believe that a masculine predominance in language usage does not have any connection whatsoever to patriarchism or anti-female prejudice?

      Certainly, the case for change has been articulated and promoted by feminist writers. Just explain to me why I should buy what is in effect your alternative “victimhood”, i.e. being silenced or prevented from arguing your own point of view. You sound pretty articulate to me.

      It’s surely a truism, and true, that if language was not the vehicle and indeed framer of ideas, there would be no debate over matters of liturgy or belief, or public policy. I believe we all acknowledge the influence vocabulary has on opinion. All I have to say, here in Australia, is “illegal immigrant” or “boat people” or “dole bludger” and hey presto! we tap a rich vein of xenophobia and classism and some very unkind things being said, which leads to some very harsh things being done. I say simply that irrespective of the impetus for new codes of speech, the idea of feminine invisibility is now in the ether and in more people’s minds. Sensitivity to it must now be taken into account. Pandora’s box is not two-way. The only way for you to eradicate the feminist paradigm is for you to argue your case, and you will have to do better than simply dismiss it by comparing it to even more serious, physical forms of discrimination or oppression. Of course there’s a hierarchy of ills and injuries. The greater does not invalidate the lesser. (And feminists would argue that the greater starts with the lesser, a principle frequently invoked by traditionalists of all kinds, as I’m sure you’re aware).

      By the way, the word was “auton” but I don’t think that’s significant. I’ve already said that I think different considerations have priority in different contexts, which I think is a reasonable proposition.

      • Stephen K says:

        My apologies in advance, Susan. The tone of my post-n-reply may come across as harsh, for which I’m sorry, no excuses.

    • Schütz says:

      In fact, we shouldn’t sing songs like that at all, Susan. They rather unthinkingly take the Words of Christ (or sometimes of God) and put them to music for us to sing back to him. Only problem is these words are Christ talking to us. What kind of ritual sense does it make to have us singing to Christ as if we were Christ singing to us? Daft. So how come everyone has been duped into doing it?

  13. John Nolan says:

    Stephen, I see where you’re coming from, but I’m with Susan on this. In English common nouns are neuter gender but it’s not the same in other European languages. The predominance of the masculine is a grammatical rule in French, but they understand that masculine and feminine are not the same as male and female, and there is no neuter gender. The German ‘Mensch’ is usually translated as ‘man’ in the sence of the Latin ‘homo’ as opposed to ‘vir’ but it is still a masculine noun. As I said before, ‘man’ without the definite or indefinite article is inclusive language as it means ‘men and women’

    In your comment you appear to be making a case for euphemism in the name of so-called political correctness. Euphemisms are best avoided; they are usually more vulgar than the words they replace, and if a speaker wants to be disparaging about (say) a group of people he can still use the euphemism, and the PC-brigade have perforce to come up with another one. I remember an American journalist once asking Nelson Mandela about the treatment of black South Africans under apartheid; she actually said: “How did you feel as an African-American …”

    Being offended by terminology reflects a sense of inferiority; no Englishman is remotely offended by being referred to as a ‘limey’ or ‘pom’ because he just thinks that ex-colonials are envious of him. He’s wrong, of course, and secretly knows it, but I would venture to say that this is a more grown-up attitude than that of those who are always looking to be offended. If that’s what they really want, I, for one, would be more than happy to oblige them.

    • Stephen K says:

      Well, John, I do appreciate what you say although I wouldn’t have described my argument as a case for euphemism as such. What you say is quite true, people who are nasty can use the euphemism rather than the original word. I believe it was in “Culture of Complaint” that Robert Hughes used the example that for some white Americans, the use of “African-American” still means “nigger” with all its nastiness. So yes, on one reading, a euphemism is simply a nasty thing said with initially milder words, but, more broadly, a euphemism is a “well-speak”, that need not in itself convey a nasty meaning, so it comes down primarily to intent and meaning, not grammar. And, although I think this process is best viewed phenomenologically, with ambiguous beginnings, my proposition is that language can affect intent, because speech tends to some degree form and frame meaning rather than just the other way round. I think that an important way (not the only way) to stop people meaning the nasty thing is to get rid of the word in the contexts in which it is used to convey the nasty meaning.

      For these reasons I don’t agree that euphemisms are “usually more vulgar”. I’m not sure what you mean by “vulgar” here – “lower-class(inferior)”? “ordinary (no special quality)”? “common (widespread)”? or “coarse (ugly, harsh-sounding)”? How can “African American” be more vulgar than “nigger”? One can’t even, I suggest, even call it a dumb contradiction because we know that adjectives like these don’t have to have an exclusive denotation and simply do their job of qualifying the noun that follows.

      Besides, I’m not even sure we are talking about euphemisms at all. We are certainly talking about substitutions, which I say is a different and larger thing, the genus to the sub-species, so to speak. “People” is not a euphemism for “men” – it is a substitution to make plainer the inclusion of “women” in the set of those of “good will”. Yes, traditionally, and perhaps etymologically “man” has meant and can mean “human being” (from its root in Sanskrit “manu”= “to think”, but it also superficially means “male human being (only)” and no-one can reasonably press that “people” does not more obviously convey the set of both sexes than “men”. So I’m arguing that substitutions like this are not vulnerable to your argument about how euphemisms may be used.

      I don’t therefore agree that your illustration of “Mensch” as standing for “homo” strengthens your case. You’re talking grammatical gender – a classificatory notion about form – whereas I’m talking sexual identity inference – a notion of meaning in the hearer. Whatever the roots and logic behind the design of words, it is legitimate to use a word B – if one is available – that means more explicitly the meaning borne by the word A.

      On the issue of offense, I would agree that not everyone makes the inferences necessary to be offended. And I’m inclined to think that if someone doesn’t make the inferences, then no harm is done by the relevant word. I guess all I would say is that if, by whatever process, a word becomes associated with an alternative meaning that excludes when it should include (and vice-versa), why not use an alternative word? Why not, where a greater good can be conceded, be magnanimous to those who say they are offended?

      What trouble we might have been spared if only the original text had been composed as “Et in terra pax gentibus bonae voluntatis”! (Or “viris et mulieribus”!)

      • Schütz says:

        But that is precisely my point, Stephen. The original text did not use “nations” or “men and women” because it was contrasting homo with deus. We need an English word that does that.

        • Stephen K says:

          Yes, I agree that “people” is not identical to “hominibus” in the sense of a “mankind-God” contrast, “people” being more of a simple collective. But, since the only subjects we attribute good will to – as human creatures/mankind – are the human people who actually and potentially exist – i.e. they are co-extensive – doesn’t, theologically speaking, if not with transliteral accuracy, “people” do the job of “hominibus”?

          David, my argument has not been primarily to insist on “people” over “men”. It has been primarily to object to a simple dismissal of the changes because they may be promoted pursuant to a gender/sex paradigm. After all, it’s a coherent way of looking at human society and language, and some of those who look at things that way are Christians you wouldn’t otherwise object to. Indeed, everyone has a pivotal paradigmatic narrative by which they operate. “Political correctness” applies in all directions, not simply leftwards.

          Oh well, there are competing values in the choice of usage, and this discussion has highlighted some of them. I don’t insist on my choice of usage, except for myself from time to time. By the way, what do you all think of the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

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