Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.
I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.
The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.