Knocked up?

The various strands of discussion about translational equivalence going on here and at Aristotle’s Feminist Subject are too juicy to leave in the limbo of comments. A couple days back, J. K. Gayle threw down the gauntlet in the debate about translational quality — at least that’s how some of us took it — by giving a long list of high quality translations of the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence. Several of them are in pairs in the same language and show different wordings.

There seems to be an assumption that Wayne and I believe that there is some idealized meaning out there and when we read the original we can tell what that is and can measure exactly how close a translation comes, and by extension that there is only one. The problem is that we, or at least I, don’t think that there is an idealized meaning. J. K. Gayle and I have been going round and round on this one. I say I can tell what the original means and I maintain that in the vast majority of cases the meaning is unique and neither vague nor ambiguous. He goes post-modern on me and challenges that. Because people are involved, he reasons, there can’t be just one meaning, and if I think there is then I must be a Platonist.

Not quite.

You see, I believe that meanings are socially constructed. The word dog refers to a category of animals by social convention. The category referred to by the Spanish word perro largely overlaps with that category. But in each language that meaning is socially constructed. The speakers of the respective languages “agree” to both the category and the word that labels it.

Yes, Virginia, there are natural kinds. But they aren’t Aristotle’s. Every language/society builds its own set. What makes translation possible is that the translator can cobble together categories (actually subcategories) in each language in such a way as to effect the communication of the same meaning — in context.

Furthermore, the fact that meanings are socially constructed has the effect that the vast, vast majority of language use in context is simultaneously precise and imprecise. Precise for its communicative end, but imprecise in that particular communicative ends do not completely determine the wordings.

Let me show you.

Situation: teen-aged daughter at home, mother at the store, father walks in the door.

Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She went to the store.


Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She went shopping.


Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She’s at the store.


Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She’s out shopping.

All the daughter’s answers are fine. At some important level they all mean the same thing. That is to say, they answer the father’s question in a culturally appropriate way. I have been, for some time, arguing that words are just the tools we use for passing meanings back and forth. This is a clear example.

But, the literalist will say, in the four different scenarios the daughter said four different things.

True, but irrelevant.

The fact is that for the purposes of the communication all the relevant information is conveyed by any of the four wordings — in context. To be more precise than is necessary goes beyond the demands of the cultural situation — and that would have its own meaning.

Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: She left at 4:36 to go to Safeway and, since it’s now 5:12, she’s probably putting the groceries in the trunk.


This combination of precision and imprecision is why there can be several high quality translations of the same text.

If we look at how people actually use language we’ll discover two things:

1) People are only as precise as they need to be.
2) They make efficient use of their linguistic materials to convey those things they want to convey.

Same scenario:

Father: Hi, where’s your mother?
Daughter: Out.

What’s up here? Well, the daughter is meeting the letter of the law by answering the question, but she’s conveying annoyance by not fully cooperating. This means something different from the wordings above, and it’s not just that the reference is different.

This is pragmatics — the study of how language is used, and the single piece most left out of Bible translation.

So let’s apply pragmatics to the pregnancy problem in Matt. 1:18 that Wayne was talking about a couple of days ago. How many ways are there in English to convey the meaning that a woman is pregnant?


She’s pregnant.
She’s expecting.
She’s going to have a baby.
She’s in a family way.
She is with child. (I find it odd to say: She’s with child.)
She’s gravid.
She’s got a bun in the oven.
She’s knocked up.

and so on.

In one way these all mean the same thing. But only doctors in a medical context will say She’s gravid. (Imagine a doctor announcing his wife’s new condition to his parents: Debbie’s gravid.) If you say She is with child., it’s half joking. Saying She’s pregnant. can be a little blunt. She’s expecting. is nicer. So is She’s going to have a baby. You hear all three of these a lot, especially if you’re in a church with a high percentage of young marrieds. And knocked up has a quite rich frame that comes with it. The prototype is that it’s out of wedlock, accidental (as opposed to saying She’s carrying his love child.), and the father doesn’t want to take any responsibility.

Look this topic up in Perseus and you’ll find that there are some 39 ways in Greek to say pregnant or conceive. However, unlike English, one of the ways of referring to pregnancy is used more than all the other ways combined, ἔχει (ἐν γαστρί) ‘She has (in the belly)’. No other way comes close. So the question is: if Matt. 1:18 is normative Greek usage, what’s the appropriate English translation?

Answer: if you think Matthew is writing plain Greek (and I’d argue he is), then it should be plain in English. Mary’s family and Joseph thought Mary was knocked up, but Matthew is giving a more informed view:

This is how Jesus, the Messiah, came to be born: His mother Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph, but before they had slept together, it was discovered that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit. (Matt. 1:18)

13 thoughts on “Knocked up?

  1. razorbackmama says:

    Totally not helpful to the discussion, but I did have a dr. use the term gravid with me. I had taken one of my other children to see him when I was about 7 months pregnant. I hadn’t seen him since before I was pregnant. He looked at me and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were gravid!” LOL!!!

    It’s a good thing my dh is a vet and I’m somewhat of a medical junkie myself, or I would have said, “Huh?????”

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Because people are involved, he reasons,. . .

    Okay, Rich, I’ll reply. But I’m afraid I’ve given too much to people to read already.

    Let me back up and start over and just say: “This is a fair, if also lengthy, summary of what we ‘have been going round and round on’.” And your translation at the end is great. And I liked the movie Knocked Up (though the the Academy didn’t). And Razorbackmama’s candid comment is hilarious and better for us than mine here. There, whoever cares what I think can stop there.

    What I really think is this isn’t just a conversation between the two of us. Earlier today, I went post modern and heard Plato talking. And after I read your post, Jeri Jaeger whispered something. Just kidding: I turned around and blew the dust off of her Experimental Phonology co-edited with John Ohala, and read her chapter 12 “Concept Formation as a Tool for Linguistic Research.” She wrote that back when she was working up the highway from you and John, and slightly before Jacques Derrida gave us anything of Of Spirit.

    She begins classically. (Hey, I warned everyone they could stop reading this much earlier):

    Concept Formation
    A language is a system of categories. This unsurprising fact is due to the nature of language users: human beings who deal with the world by mentally categorizing and organizing it as much as possible (Boas 1911:20-21; Sapir 1921: Ch. 1). Linguists regularly make claims, covertly or overtly, about the organization, stucture [sic], and content of speakers’ linguistic categorizations; such concepts as ‘phoneme,’ ‘morpheme,’ ‘word,’ and ‘sentence’ are, in fact, theories about what units count as being ‘the same’ in speakers’ conceptualizations. However, such theories have rarely been tested” (page 211).

    I just can’t miss the fact that Jaeger can’t miss the fact that she’s talking about human beings. Yeah, she’s talking about language, and concept formation, and linguists, and their theories too.

    Where’s the tests? she’s asking. And she also asks whether something can be the same when it really is different or whether things can be different when they really are the same. Okay. Fine. She’s not asking questions at all. She’s making statements. Same thing.

    Wayne’s asking, in his most recent post, what makes up the category “possessives,” and several of you already are supplying variant allo-possessions to fill up the general category “possession.” Wait a minute. “possessives” is different from “possession” (Wayne’s term). Same thing.

    Now did I really reason this: “Because people are involved. . . there can’t be just one meaning”? Thanks for calling me reasonable. You didn’t use those words. Same thing. But I did reason this: “because people are involved, there can be more than one meaning.” Same thing again.

    The ugly example I gave so long ago of people and meanings is this one: James Murphy translating Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Murphy gets clever on his English speaking audience and sells Hitler’s words as “self-evident.” Exactly the same thing Thomas Jefferson said in his let’s-get-things-going political text. And Hitler was trying to do the different-things-are-naturally-the-same game with his German jailers and the Jews in Germany: Hitler wanted his German readers to see that he saw them both to be the same, to Hitler despicable by nature. Regrettably, Hitler and Murphy convinced a few. People have power with words.

    When different things are the same, or when the same things are different, and when the theories are yet unproven or, worse, unexamined, then we’ve got potential for trouble. When the unwed teenage girl is knocked up and she doesn’t know who the father is because she believed more than one boy who told her “love” is the same as “sleeping together,” then we’ve got potential for trouble.

    Whether we’re modern or postmodern or believe those are just the same kinds of irrelevant conversations when we’re trying to talk about better Bibles, we people do well to acknowledge what we ourselves are doing (and not doing) with words.

    As you kindly reminded us in your recent comment on Wayne’s post, our language is “not for ourselves alone.”

  3. Mike Sangrey says:

    Thanks again, Rich.

    I’d like to mention here that we need to become skillful with pragmatics in two different, but highly related, ways.

    First, on the positive side, in order to properly interpret a text, we need to foster the skill of entering their world. That is, the pragmatic meaning (those contextual ligaments) functioned when the text was written. So, we should try to use that pragmatic stuff within which the text functioned back then.

    On the negative side, we have to become sensitive to how easy it is to wrap their language within our context. That is, the pragmatic meaning–of our world–functions quite naturally within our world and we easily use our connections (without conscious thought) when interpreting any communicative act, including one written long ago. We tend to take a lot of cartilage (context connecting tissue) back with us on our trip to their world. So, we should try to not use the pragmatic stuff as it functions within our world. We have to develop the skill of recognizing the connections we rely on in our world so we can see them when we don’t want to use them in their world.

    Those are two complementary skills that a Bible student needs to develop in order to do good exegesis.

  4. Beyond Words says:

    Maybe this is what J.K. is saying-so forgive me if I’m being redundant. Phrases can have the same surface meaning but different connotations. I think translators should be careful to pick idioms appropriately. Although there are many ways to say “pregnant” in English,no one I know uses “knocked up” unless the pregnancy’s unexpected/unplanned. It almost implies the pregnancy happened to the mother without her consent.

    Even the simple example of “shopping” compared to “going to the store,” isn’t as straightforward as one might think. Where I live, “going to the store” is utilitarian, reserved for getting groceries and such. Shopping can be paired with “groceries,” but when used alone it usually implies selecting something more interesting, like clothing.

    The precision/imprecision isn’t in the literalness of the words, but in the context and connotation they create. And that’s true of all good writing–not just Bible translations.

  5. Richard A. Rhodes says:


    You want I should say “before they had sex”?

    The Greek is συνέρχομαι which is an ordinary Greek euphemism for ‘have sex’. Match a euphemism to a euphemism, unless there’s a reason not to.

    Interestingly enough, Greek uses the same euphemistic logic as Latin which gives us the loan word coitus, lit. ‘going with’, suggesting that the FE gloss as ‘come together’ is wrong even by their rules. Greek, like many languages, doesn’t distinguish between ‘come’ and ‘go’, but Latin and English do.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Is Latin coitus really from “going together”, or is it a loan from Greek koitos (from keimai) “bed, marriage-bed”? In fact the Latin word, at least in this sense, appears to date from the 18th century AD! – and was no doubt coined by someone who knew the Greek word. So I am sure there is at least some interference between the two possible etymologies.

  7. Richard A. Rhodes says:

    Nope, the expression is very old. Here’s the relevant part of the entry from Lewis and Short for the Latin verb coere (whence the productively formed fourth declension nominalization coïtus)

    b. Of the coition of the sexes (both of men and animals), to copulate, Lucr. 4, 1055; cf. Ov. M. 11, 744: cum alienā uxore, Quint. 7, 3, 10 : coisse eam cum viro, id. 5, 9, 5 : dominum cum ancillā, id. 5, 11, 35 : cum hospitibus stupro, Curt. 5, 1, 37 al. : privigno, Ov. H. 4, 129 : simul binis, Sen. Cons. ad Marc. 17, 5 : sic et aves coëunt, Ov. M. 9, 733 ; 10, 324; id. A. A. 2, 615; Col. 6, 27, 3 sq.; Ov. F. 3, 193 al.; cf., of marriage, [p. 359]

    and the entry for coïtus:

    B. Sexual intercourse, coition (not in Cic.); in this signif. only coitus is used.– Of men, Ov. M. 7, 709 ; Suet. Calig. 25; cf. Quint. 8, 6, 24; Gai Inst. 1, 64; 1, 87.–Of animals, Col. 6, 24, 3; 6, 23, 3 (Cod. Polit. coetus); Cels. 2, 1 fin. al.–

    The English use of coitus rather than coition (as you see in the definitions above) is more recent (1713 vs. 1541).

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks, Rich. This identity of form (barring the regular -us/-os variation) between unrelated words with almost the same meaning must then be as coincidental as the fact that in one Australian Aboriginal language dog means “dog”.

  9. J. K. Gayle says:

    Peter and Rich,
    You can go beyond your dictionary to see the words in action:

    Jerome had this motto–“ominis coitus impurus

    If he is translating the Vulgate, then he finds coitus a useful term for Hebrew phrases in Leviticus and Genesis. So compare the Latin and Greek in LXX (and English “emission of semen” in TNIV) at Leviticus 15:16 and 22:4.

    κοίτη σπέρματος
    semen coitus

    semen quasi coitus
    κοίτη σπέρματος

    Now are these really not cognates? The Latin of the Greek, of course.

    (In Genesis 30:39, the TNIV’s “mated” is the Vulgate’s “coitus” is the LXX’s ἐγκισσήσωσιν;

    In Leviticus 18:17, the TNIV’s “That is wickedness” is the Vulgate’s “et talis coitus incestus est” is the LXX’s ἀσέβημά ἐστιν.

    The Hebrew’s interesting alone, but the translations are fascinating. And doesn’t Jerome read a little Greek?)

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks, Kurk. How old in fact are the Greek words koitos and koite in this sense? Could they be a loan from Latin coitus and in fact only homonyms with the same words in the sense “bed”?

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    Good questions, Peter. For your second question, I don’t have an answer. For your first, here’s a couple of excerpts from Pindar’s Pythian Odes (2 then 11):

    ὅτι τε μεγαλοκευθέεσσιν ἔν ποτε θαλάμοις Διὸς ἄκοιτιν ἐπειρᾶτο. . . .εὐναὶ δὲ παράτροποι ἐς κακότατ’ ἀθρόαν ἔβαλον:

    second, in the vast recesses of that bridal chamber he once made an attempt on the wife of Zeus. . . Unnatural lust throws men into dense trouble;

    because once in the great depths of her chambers he made an attempt on Zeus’s wife. . . Aberrant acts of love cast one into the thick of trouble;

    ἢ ἑτέρῳ λέχεϊ δαμαζομέναν ἔννυχοι πάραγον κοῖται; τὸ δὲ νέαις ἀλόχοις ἔχθιστον ἀμπλάκιον καλύψαι τ’ ἀμάχανον

    Or was she vanquished by another bed and led astray by their nightly sleeping together? This is the most hateful error for young brides,

    Or did nighttime lovemaking lead her astray by enthralling her to another’s bed? That sin [adultery] is most hateful in young wives

    (The English translations are Basil Gildersleeve’s 1885, and William H. Race’s 1997. Gildersleeve says in his notes that the phrase πάραγον κοῖται in Ode 11 is a synonym of εὐναὶ παράτροποι in Ode 2; εὐναὶ is another word, of course, for “bed” and παράτροποι is for “turned-aside” or “aberrant.”

    The most recent published translation of Pindar is Pythian Ode 4 by Steven J. Willett, which he says is the most difficult. Too bad Willett hasn’t gotten around to either 2 or 11 so we can see how he’d “foreignize” that English. “Foreignize” is Willett’s preference for translation, and he speaks out against “dynamic equivalence,” which he calls “domesticating translation.”)

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks, Kurk. I think you have answered the second question as well as the first, for if Pindar used the word in Thebes, Greece, in 475-474 BC (amazingly accurate dates from Wikipedia) it is highly unlikely to be a loan from Latin, a language not well known in Greece at the time.

    So this must be another mysterious case of the aboriginal dog, that maybe didn’t bark in the night.

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