June 19, 2005

Etymology as argument again

Russell Shorto's article on gay marriage in the 6/19/2005 NYT magazine quotes Brian Racer of the Open Door Bible Church as presenting an example of the argument-from-etymology that I recently posted about:

''The Hebrew words for male and female are actually the words for the male and female genital parts,'' he told me. ''The male is the piercer; the female is the pierced. That is the way God designed it. It's unfortunate that homosexuals have taken the moniker 'gay,' because their lifestyle and its consequences are anything but. Look what has happened in the decades since the sexual revolution and acceptance of the gay lifestyle as normal. Viruses have mutated. S.T.D.'s have spread. It shows that when we try to change the natural course of things, what comes out of that is not joy or gayness.''

Focusing only on the male=piercer, female=pierced part, we have several strands to untangle here. There's the use of philological arguments in the exegesis of sacred texts, which is valid in principle (though dubious to say the least in this case). But as quoted by Shorto, the Rev. Racer is not trying to tell us how to interpret Genesis 5.2 correctly. He's framing an argument about the proper role of the sexes in sex, or something like that. As in the example of the Rev. Jakes' argument about forgiveness in Greek, it seems that appeals to etymology in scriptural languages are felt to retain some residual rhetorical force, even when no specific scriptural citations are at issue.

And as in the Greek forgiveness case, the Hebrew male and female story seems to be a weak one at best. I assume that the Rev. Racer is in fact referring indirectly to Genesis 5.2, so let's take that as the basis for choosing which Hebrew words for male and female to look at:

male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

And I assume that Racer's preferred method of linguistic exegesis would be to use Strong's Numbers, which will tell us that the words for male and female in Genesis 5.2 are (in Strong's rendering) zkr -- Strong's Number 02145, definition "male (of humans and animals)" -- and hbqn -- Strong's Number 05347, definition "woman, female child" or "female animal". zkr is said to be derived from the "primitive root" rkz, Strong's Number 02142, definition "to remember, recall, call to mind", while hbqn is said to be derived from the primitive root bqn, Strong's Number 05344, meaning "to pierce, perforate, bore, appoint".

Uri Horesh, a linguist who knows Hebrew well, emailed this as a comment on the quote from Racer:

The word for 'female', /nekeva/, is of the same root as /nekev/, 'puncture', presumably indicative of the vagina. As for the word for 'male', /zaxar/, I cannot see any connection with anything having to do with a penis. It's of the same root as the verb 'remember' (and in fact, in Modern Israeli Hebrew they're homophones [no pun intended]; in older varieties of Hebrew there were two different /a/ vowels, distinguished by either length or height).

This agrees with my guess that the words at issue at those in Genesis 5.2, and with Strong about the derivation of those words. Apparently Racer remembered the "puncture" part and fantasized the rest. It's interesting that people who favor arguments from authority are so careless about what the authoritative sources actually say.

While I would be the last person to argue against using linguistic methods in textual interpretation, I'm very skeptical about the idea of transmuting etymology into philosophy. Taking the glosses given by Strong, perhaps the Hebrew etymologies for male and female should lead us instead to a theological position in which women get appointed, and men's dominance is just a memory? We can tie this further to the old theory that relates the Latin source of English male, which is mas (masculus was a diminutive form) to an Indoeuropean origin connected to a word for thinking or remembering. As Lewis & Short have it, mas is "prob. from Sanscr. root man, think; manus, man, human being; cf.: memini, moneo, etc.". Well, I think that the alleged IE connections between words for thinking and words like man and male are now generally rejected, and there's a lot more to be said about words for the sexes in classical languages, where I'm no kind of expert, but in any case this whole style of argument is silly, even when the philology is right.

[Link to Shorto's story by email from Eh Nonymous at the Unused and Probably Unusable blawg]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 19, 2005 01:13 PM