I am putting together all the Christmas sheets and handouts at the moment and one of the carols we are singing this year is God rest you merry, gentlemen. Out of linguistic curiosity I searched on the internet for inclusive versions and got involved in a whole trail of interesting blogs and comments. The best suggested inclusive version is to sing “God rest you merry, gentlefolk” – hardly any easier on the modern ear and it has what I call the ‘ouch’ factor – it is so obviously a tampering with the archaic English that you can hear the gears grinding. It has always seemed to me that the real art with inclusive language is to be so inclusive as to be unobtrusive.
God rest you…
During the various discussions I came across some points were well made – some attempts to be inclusive actually changes the overall meaning of what was intended by the original writer of the lyrics. So, I agree with those who point out that the first line of this carol is a prayer of blessing along the lines of “May God…’ and that rest you merry is akin to expressions like ‘rest content’ and that ‘you’ is not to replaced with ‘ye’ as it switches the object to the vocative. All of this sort of tampering confirms me in my instinct that with many venerable ancient English texts it is best to leave it as the original authors intended otherwise you run the danger of distorting their meaning. If that original meaning is somewhat challenging to the 21st century reader then it can be discussed and in some cases perhaps dropped from usage (for example if anti-Semitic) but this popular carol does not overtly promote misogynistic thinking so is best left untampered and enjoyed for what it is, a wonderfully jaunty re-telling of part of the Christmas story.
“Peace to all men”
Some threads though elicited comments about the song of the angels in Luke chapter 2 verse 14 – in many places we hear this rendered along the lines of: “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to all men” – some of the critics of the politically correct approach tend at this juncture to produce obvious examples of what they claim is unnecessary tidying up of such language and which they suggest is interference of an unwarranted nature. In this way they attempt to debunk the entire inclusive language idea.
It is at this point that the Greek scholar in me takes over. In the latest scholarly edition of the Greek New Testament Luke’s text reads in a literal translation: Glory in the Highest (heavens) to God and on earth peace in/among people of goodwill” The word used for ‘people’ is the noun ‘anthropos’ from which we derive our terms ‘anthropology’, philanthropy etc. Greek has other words used specifically for those of the specifically male gender and for those of a female gender. This word tends to function as a more inclusive term – in modern English it is often translated as ‘person’ or ‘people’. The same is true for the Latin version which uses ‘homo’ rather than ‘vir.
Our ancestors translated many such texts using Man/Mankind with a Capital letter as a reference to humans generally because this is how English expressed humanity as a category – it is hard to tell how many of them were thinking of these in definitely exclusivist terms all along because it has only become an issue in modern times. With the angelic song in Luke even if we revert to the alternative reading “goodwill in/among people” the choice of words have not changed merely that in the currently preferred reading peace is bestowed on those of goodwill and in the variant reading good will is bestowed on people in the same general category as before. With this particular text the onus of defence is really on those who wish to stick to ‘men’ in modern usage. By all means leave it in when quoting or using the 1611 Authorized Version but otherwise the more general and inclusive versions prove to be more in line with the original texts.
Not all men are equal
And so not all men are equal especially in Biblical texts and Men does include all those who belong to the human species in older English texts. In sermons, parish magazine articles and other media output these days we should be careful about our language – whatever some of us were taught in our childhood ‘men’ comes across as ‘male only’ in our current age and just as other words inherited from the past have changed meaning such as the famous “Prevent us, O Lord” so we need to be more precise in our discourse. The split infinitive seems here to stay and ‘upcoming’ has replaced ‘forthcoming’. Like some of the bloggers and commentators I read I too find some of the shifts in the English language are not all for the best but I am also prepared to accept that some verbal assumptions can cause genuine offence and, somewhat curiously, in adapting my own speech and written language to be more inclusive I find myself upholding that age old tradition of my ancestors – politeness!