Mounce Misunderstands "Man"

Bill Mounce is a top expert on exegesis and translation of the Bible. He was a major contributor to the ESV translation, and a regular contributor to the Koinonia blog. It is good that, as I announced last month, he has joined the Committee on Bible Translation which is currently revising the NIV.

Unfortunately Bill Mounce is not an expert on advertising. As a result he has made himself look rather stupid by misunderstanding a car advertisement, and by repeatedly posting his misunderstanding. The first time he posted this on his personal blog:

But “mankind” continues to be used as a generic term in English, as does “man.” I know there are people who disagree with this point, but the fact that it is used generically over and over again cannot truly be debated; the evidence is everywhere. Have you noticed the new advertisement for the Prius: “Harmony Between Man, Nature And Machine.” I’ll bet Toyota would be glad to sell to women.

Yes, Bill, this “fact” can be debated, as I do below. (Joel Hoffman also blogged about this.)

Bill Mounce repeated his error this week in a summary he posted at Koinonia of his SBL paper on the ESV and the TNIV, in which he wrote, in support of his argument that “man” can have a gender generic meaning:

Just watch enough football and you will see the ad for the Prius: “Harmony between Man, Nature, and Machine.” A person may not like using “man” to mean “mankind”; a particular subculture may not like it, …

I assume the ad that Mounce has in mind is this:

See also this analysis of the advertising campaign.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on advertising myself. But one thing that I do know is that advertising is highly gender specific, and targeted to particular groups. Now of course “Toyota would be glad to sell to women”; indeed the only Prius driver I know is a woman. Nevertheless the advertising for most cars is clearly directed towards men, meaning not women. The days may be past when nearly naked women were draped across them, but there are all kinds of subtleties of design and presentation designed to appeal to men. I’m sure that is true, and deliberately so, of the very shape of the Prius.

I accept that in this particular ad, with lots of flowers, the message is a bit sexually ambiguous and might attract women also. But I also see a clear sexually charged allusion at the end in the way the car rushes up a hill with a somewhat phallic shape, and this is when the words “Harmony between Man, Nature, and Machine” are used. Perhaps the message they are trying to drive home is that you can be a real man, with a manly car, and still love nature and flowers.

One thing is certain: the advertisers considered very carefully what message they were giving with the word “man”, and it was by no means a simple gender generic one. As such Bill Mounce, in quoting this as an example of generic “man”, had missed the point of the ad, and in the process made himself look a bit stupid.

Nevertheless Mounce does have some very good points to make in his SBL paper summary, especially this:

I am not convinced that non-academic celebrities should be making pronouncements on translation theory.

Indeed. Let those who have never studied translation theory stop criticising translations.

0 thoughts on “Mounce Misunderstands "Man"

  1. Peter, I have one thing to add to your analysis. I think Toyota was also playing on the stock phrase “man and machine,” which has been around since before gendered language became an issue. Changing “man” to “people,” or to something else, would have destroyed the rhythm of the words, an important concern for advertisers. As part of the stock phrase, “man” in this context is not a good example of “man” used generically. And so Mounce is wrong for this reason as well.

  2. Peter, nice post. But I’m not certain we can dismiss analysis so quickly: 1. The ad begins with a woman singing. 2. At the ascent a male begins to talk.

    Both genders are featured. But I’m not an expert in these matters. 😉

  3. I’d have to agree that “man and machine,” being a stock phrase, proves a demonstration of an exception rather than a general rule. Is “man versus nature” still understood? Yes. Is generic “man” still understood? Sometimes, by some people. It is liked by less people than it is understood by, of course.

    Peter, I totally agree with your understanding of this advertisement.

    I don’t think it can be argued that “man” was never used generically, though whether it can be legitimate today is certainly debatable (contra Mounce).

    Does anyone know the origin of the generic “man” in German (e.g. “kann man das sagen?”)? If I were a betting man, I’d bet that it came from Mann, the actual word for a man. The spelling changed for clarification purposes between the two uses. Can anyone with a better grasp of German either verify or deny this for me? I’d appreciate that.

  4. Thanks for the comments on this one. I accept that analysis of the ad is complicated.

    TC, your observation in fact strengthens my point: it is when the man talks that the word “man” is used.

    Bill, maybe my honeymoon has influenced my thinking, for the better, but in fact I made much the same point in a comment elsewhere even before I was married!

    Gary, I am not claiming that “man” was never used generically, nor even that it never is today. I accept that “man” is sometimes still used of the whole of homo sapiens as a species. My point is simply that this ad does not provide the evidence Mounce claims for it.

  5. That English has changed significantly on this point has been established for a very long time.

    I remember my undergraduate linguistics textbook citing a study in which people were asked to choose captions for a social studies textbook. They were to choose from a stock set of captions one they thought would best match a particular picture. All the pictures showed diverse groups of people (different races, different cultures, to judge by their dress), but some groups were more or less evenly divided between males and females, while others were predominantly one sex or the other. The study found that when asked to find a picture to go with captions containing generic ‘man’ or ‘mankind’, people overwhelmingly chose pictures in which males predominated. When asked to find pictures to go with captions such as ‘The Human Family’ or some such, they chose pictures which were evenly balanced between the sexes.

    This study must have been done no later than the mid-’70s, so that means even 30 years ago, usage had shifted enough for people to associate ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ with male human beings, rather than people of both sexes.

    The issue as far as Biblical translation is concerned is not simply what is acceptable English usage (determined by whatever criterion), but what particuclar words connote to most people. If ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ connote ‘male people’, then they are not good translations of Greek and Hebrew words whose connotation is broader.

    I suspect the reason that people like Mounce think eveyone still uses ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ generically is that he inhabits a linguistic subculture which uses these words in these ways. But that doesn’t mean the majority of the populace does. I suspect the reason American Evangelicals think these words are still currently used in this way is that their Bibles use them that way, and the Biblical usage shapes their own usage. They hear these usages in church often enough to think they’re more broadly used. Holding onto such language is a fine translational strategy if you only want to reach the people who are already acculturated to the church. But if you want to keep on using language in ways that have become archaic to the broader culture, why not just go back to the Authorised Version?

    As for the audience for the Toyota ad, it seems to the me that the people the advertisers were trying to reach is pretty obvious from the fact it was shown during a football game. Granted, some women watch football, but if you want to appeal to men, what better time to reach your target market? Toyota is using Neanderthal language to appeal to the Neanderthals who enjoy watching other Neanderthals crashing into each other on a field as they chase a piece of animal hide.

  6. Thank you, Anne Marie. I agree with you – although not completely about football! Of course it would be interesting, but impossible, to do the same caption test concerning Greek anthropoi or Hebrew ‘adam – we can’t be sure that the results would not be similar to those for “man” and “mankind”.

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