Google your loins

image I’ve noticed several times that the writers at Language Log are using Google searches to judge naturalness of English expressions. These folks at Language Log are linguists with a capital L and so it’s made me think that maybe this practice is more acceptable than I had previously imagined.

The most recent example was a discussion of the phrase “an irreverence for power.” Barbara Partee judged this as being either ungrammatical or quaint but after a quick Google search discovered that the phrase is more common than she thought.

How might we use Google to judge naturalness of English Bible translations?

  • My first idea would be that if we searched for a phrase found in our Bible and discovered that the only “hits” come from religious sites than there is a good chance this is religious vocabulary that might not be used or understood by the average English speaker. Second, clicking on the News tab at the top of the search results gives a narrower “journalistic” search for that phrase. (I blogged about this last year in the post Using Google to evaluate Bible translations)

To give you an example, I took a phrase from today’s “Verse of the Day” at Bible Gateway and did some checking on it using Google.

“[Be Holy] Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.”- 1 Peter 1:13 (NIV)

Searching for "prepare your minds for action" brought up a hit page with all the links referring to the passage in 1 Peter. Aha! So this seems to be an example of Biblish. (Total hits: 6,580)

When I hit the News tab on Google, this is the result I got:

Your search – "prepare your minds for action" – did not match any documents.

imageNow let’s try this exercise again with the CEV. The phrase is translated “think straight.” (By the way, NLT translates this as “think clearly.”)

The first page of the Google search brings up ten results, none of which refers to 1 Peter 1:13. (Total hits: 1,340,000) The News search brings up 65 results.

The evidence is clear. The CEV phrase is far more common than the NIV phrase. But here’s the catch. Both the phrases in English are translating an idiom in Greek that sounds very strange: ἀναζωσάμενοι τὰς ὀσφύας τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν. This phrase is rendered very directly in the KJV as “gird up the loins of your mind.” How often have you said that to your kids when they’re studying for a test: “Gird up the loins of your mind!” Or how about when you’re just feeling slightly scatterbrained. Do you ever say to yourself, “I really need to gird up the loins of my mind!”

This brings us back to the topic of domesticization and foreignization of Bible translations. What is gained and what is lost by making our translations sound natural? Even saying the word “loins” makes me giggle. What exactly are loins? Well, from a quick study this word seemed to be used in two different ways in the New Testament:

  1. The waist (Matthew 3:4)
  2. The male reproductive organs (Hebrews 7:10 and Acts 2:30)

Here the NET Bible seems to succinctly identify the origin of this phrase: “Grk “binding up the loins of your mind,” a figure of speech drawn from the Middle Eastern practice of gathering up long robes around the waist to prepare for work or action.” The NET translates this phrase as “get your minds ready for action.” The results for this phrase on Google are similar to those for the NIV above.

image Interestingly the phrase, gird your loins came up during the recent presidential elections. Read this quote of Joe Biden:

"Gird your loins," Biden told the crowd. "We’re gonna win with your help, God willing, we’re gonna win, but this is not gonna be an easy ride. This president, the next president, is gonna be left with the most significant task. It’s like cleaning the Augean stables, man.”

This outburst so confused people that Slate magazine came out with an article called “Loin-Girding 101.” The phrase was also used in the movie The Devil Wears Prada.

My take on this passage is that the expression “gird the loins of your mind” in 1 Peter 1 is not a part of an extended metaphor so I don’t particularly see a need to retain it in a translation. A similar phrase with the equivalent impact in English might have the rhetorical impact of the original. How about these options:

  1. Get your head screwed on straight!
  2. Pull your head out!
  3. Wake up and smell the coffee!

Do any of those get close to the impact of the original expression for the original readers? #2 sounds slightly vulgar. But if the phrase did have slight sexual connotations based on the second meaning of “loins” it could have been a risqué expression. I vote for #3. What’s your idea?


26 thoughts on “Google your loins

  1. J. K. Gayle says:

    Are you saying that old Hebrew and Greek (and Roman) imagery in the Bible needs replacing because English has evolved? I read your Joe-Biden article and gather from it that bible translators should avoid the language of American politicians prone to gaffes. But seriously, the Slate writer presumes to instruct:

    “To gird means to bind or encircle, and loins refers to the area between your hips and ribs. (Note: In this case, loins does not refer to the genitals, as with Nabokov’s ‘light of my life, fire of my loins.’)”

    Why not just keep the metaphors (of the bible and the cultures so foreign to us now therein) and swap out the old English for new? Why not “bind up the mid-section of your minds”?

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Since you’ve given Greek, how would DE translators (i.e., of the “Bible”) translate the funny Aristophanes without ruining his jokes? If you swap drop the imagery, (i.e., if you decode the synecdoche or the metaphor or the imaginative wordplay), then don’t you rob the reader of your translation?

    In his play Wasps, he has Bdelycleon saying this:

    ἀλλ’ ὦ πόνηρε τὸ γένος ἤν τις ὀργίσῃ
    τὸ τῶν γερόντων, ἔσθ’ ὅμοιον σφηκιᾷ.
    ἔχουσι γὰρ καὶ κέντρον ἐκ τῆς ὀσφύος
    ὀξύτατον, ᾧ κεντοῦσι, καὶ κεκραγότες
    πηδῶσι καὶ βάλλουσιν ὥσπερ φέψαλοι.

    What! you dare to speak so? Why, this class of old men, if irritated, becomes as terrible as a swarm of wasps. They carry below their loins the sharpest of stings, with which to prick their foe; they shout and leap and their stings burn like so many sparks.

    And in Peace, Hierocles asks this question that Trygaeus answers:

    τίς ἡ θυσία ποθ’ αὑτηὶ καὶ τῷ θεῶν;

    ὀπτα σὺ σιγῇ κἄπαγ’ ἀπὸ τῆς ὀσφύος

    What sacrifice is this? to what god are you offering it?

    Keep quiet.—Look after the roasting and keep your hands off the meaty loins.

  3. David Ker says:

    This phrase in 1 Peter is one of those cases where I suspect it was not a live metaphor. Your references to classical Greek are obviously scatological. I doubt Peter was being scatological especially considering the immediate context. But I’m open to being convinced.

    RE: “bind up the mid-section of your minds”… I might as well read the KJV.

    I would favor a translation like CEV with a note like the NET.

  4. Esteban Vázquez says:

    Dude, you’re doing it wrong. What you have to google is this:

    “prepare your minds for” -action -actions -morrow

    That takes out many of the references to I Peter and to Ether in the Book of Mormon (which replicates the phrase). The search above returns 1,130 results. Now you have to weed out the results which simply mimic the Biblical phrase, and find true instances of its use in “normal English.” (I found a few bona fide uses, literary and non-literary just going through the first five pages.) So, get cracking, buster! 😉

  5. David Ker says:

    Excellent idea, Esteban. In this case I do think the full phrase is in focus (prepare your minds for action) since it is meant to represent the “meaning” of the Greek phrase. Even so, using + and – in the search strings is a great way to narrow things down.

    Using Google to do corpus linguistics is fraught with pitfalls but, shhhhh, we all do it. 😉

  6. David Ker says:

    BTW The NLT Online Study Bible has this note:

    think clearly (literally gird the loins of your mind): In Peter’s day, a man had to tuck the hem of his long robe into his belt before he could work or run.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    Kurk, maybe my mind isn’t dirty enough to understand Aristophanes, but what’s wrong with “waists” in the first extract and “meat” in the second?

  8. Tim Bulkeley says:

    Is the Greek phrase a common one? If so I’d be all for the explicatory translation. But if it is not a common one, then I’d guess the writer intended a picture of preparing mentally for battle in which case NIV would be spot on… but I am not a Greek guy, so I don’t know… can someone tell us?

  9. John Hobbins says:

    Hi David,

    My groin groans at this post. If you google the Greek phrase in question in ancient Greek, it turns out the phrase is very unusual if not unique. Just ask Kurk.

    But we can’t have unusual or unique phrases in the Bible. As was said once before to Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You know not the ways and means of your Father in heaven.

    NLT corrects Peter insofar as it takes out the figures of speech in this verse.

    Rather than:

    So think clearly and exercise self-control


    So strip your minds for action; be sober and stay sober

    The first part, BTW, is pretty close to REB, which are apparently not reading because you have not told me what address I need to send that Sarah Palin calender to.

    Okay, okay, David, your post ends well. You are looking for a metaphor-for-metaphor translation. That’s great.

    But don’t be afraid to make it as unusual or unique as it was in the first place.

  10. J. K. Gayle says:

    Yep, Aristosphanes and his characters must have scatological intentions. But to say that the metaphor is dead for Peter is to say it’s as moribund to the other NT writers, no? What could the writer of Hebrews mean by τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς αὐτῶν . . . ἐκ τῆς ὀσφύος Ἀβραάμ and ἐν τῇ ὀσφύϊ τοῦ πατρὸς? There’s no scatological joke there, but aren’t the referents to the body (to the male genitals?) and, therefore, generative (in the ways my two “gen-” words in English here have meaning together)? I think it’s more interesting that Luke, translating or relating the translation of Stephen in Greek, keeps the Hebrew/Aramaic imagery in the Greek when he writes the martyr as saying, ἐκ καρποῦ τῆς ὀσφύος αὐτοῦ. When does the translator get to decide not to let a metaphor be born again in the second language?

    What’s wrong with “waists” or “meat” in Nabokov’s “light of my life, fire of my loins”? Is there nothing “dirty” in the Bible? Can the translators get away with making sure there’s no double meanings in the translation, for cleanliness sake?

  11. J. K. Gayle says:

    But don’t be afraid to make it as unusual or unique as it was in the first place. Right on, John!

    Is the Greek phrase a common one? Tim, Paul uses a different verb to Greek readers in Ephesus (6:4): περιζωσάμενοι τὴν ὀσφὺν ὑμῶν. It’s the verb Aristotle uses in his Athenian Constitution, where he remembers “Cleon son of Cleaenetus, who is thought to have done the most to corrupt the people by his impetuous outbursts, and was the first person to use bawling and abuse on the platform, and to gird up his cloak [καὶ περιζωσάμενος ἐδημηγόρησ] before making a public speech, all other persons speaking in orderly fashion.”

  12. David Ker says:

    This has got me humming, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.”

    Not to steer the conversation or anything… 😉 but what are y’all feeling about using Google for judging naturalness/acceptability of phrases in English?

  13. Cameron says:

    I think I paraphrased this once in a sermon as ‘tighten the jockstrap of your mind.’

    I think we’d just sung a couple of happy clappy jumpy songs, and I think the fellas all understood.

  14. Bill Heroman says:

    “Tighten your belt” seems to have the wrong meaning entirely.
    Howabout “Lace up your cross trainers”.
    Nah, way too 1988.
    Talk about archaic language! 😉

  15. David Ker says:

    How about, “Suck it up, you whiners?” Hmmm, maybe I need to go to bed.

    Peter was a tough dude and a fisherman so maybe he did have a fairly robust and earthy vocabulary.

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    David asked:

    what are y’all feeling about using Google for judging naturalness/acceptability of phrases in English?

    As with anything else found on the Internet, we have to “consider the source.” Not everything found on the Internet is true. Not everything posted on the Internet is written in natural language. We have to try to determine whether or not what was written by written by someone who is a fluent, native speaker of a language, whether they follow rules of standard usage for that language, we have to find out during what period of the history of a language a document we are googling was written, we need to learn what register of a language a document was written in.

    I have had a number of people respond to my field test results with Google results that show hits on word sequences that my field testing and personal linguistic intuitions would say are not natural. But the Google results lack the rigor of scientific data sampling and all the background information we need (such as the question raised in the preceding paragraph) to determine if what was written is actually natural in the language.

    We also need to recognize that naturalness in language is part of a system of percentages. An utterance or phrase is not natural simply because it occurs in a document somewhere. Wordings become natural when they are used by a high enough percentage of fluent speakers of a language. I don’t know what that percentage is, but I’m guessing it should be well north of 60%. (That’s the first time I’ve used “north” in this way. I deliberately used it this way because I am hearing this usage more and more. It seems to be becoming natural!

    Of course, if googling for some wording produces a number of hits but they all come from the Bible or sermons by ministers who speak or write Biblish, then the results are not legitimate, since they represent circular reasoning, proving Biblish is natural because we find occurrences of Biblish on the Internet.

  17. David Ker says:

    Peter, that’s terrific.

    Sue, just wait for my next post…

    Wayne, I’m with you on the limits of “googling” data. I do think it is a valid test for Biblish as I outlined at the beginning.

  18. J. K. Gayle says:

    Sue, LOL!

    Here’s how the woman, Julia Evelina Smith, who knew both Hebrew and Greek, translates. How different it would be with the metaphors deleted (even if she’d been able to google what the other American and British English writers were writing) :

    “Wherefore having girded up the loins of your mind, living abstemiously, hope perfectly upon the grace brought to you in the revelation of Jesus Christ”
    — I Peter 1:13

    “And so shall ye eat it, your loins girded, your shoes on your feet and your staff in your hand : and ye ate it m hasty flight ; a passing over to Jehovah.”
    — Exodus 12:11

    “And he judged the powerless with justice, and he decided in straightness for the humble of the earth: and he struck the earth with the rod of his mouth, and by the spirit of his lips he will slay the unjust. And justice was the girding of his loins, and truth the girding of his loins.”
    — Isaiah 11:4-5

    “Rise up, ye careless women; hear my voice, ye confident daughters; give ear to my word. Days over a year shall ye being confident, be disturbed; for the vintage being finish, the ingathering shall not come. Tremble, ye careless; be disturbed, ye confident: strip and be naked, gird upon the loins. Smiting Upon the breasts, for the fields of desire. Upon the land of my people shall come the thorn of the sharp point. . . ”
    — Isaiah 33:9-13

    ” Ask ye now, and see if a male brought forth? wherefore did I see every man his hands upon his loins as she bringing forth, and all faces were turned to paleness?”
    — Jeremiah 30:6

    “She purposed a field, and he will take it: from the fruit of her hands she planted a vineyard. She girded her loins with strength, and she will strengthen her arms”
    — Proverbs 31:16-17

    “Gird now thy loins as a man ; and I will ask thee, and make thou known to me.”
    — Job 38:3

    “For where your treasure is, there also will be your heart. Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye like men expecting their Lord, when he shall loose from the nuptials; that having come and knocked, they might quickly open to him. Happy those servants, whom the Lord having come shall find watching; truly I say to you, he will gird himself, and make them recline, and having come he will serve them.”
    –Joshua (aka Jesus) speaking rather metaphorically in Hebrew-Aramaic, a first century Jewish male to other first century men who are Jews, in Luke’s Greek translation (now in Julia’s English, Luke 7:34-38)

  19. Dru says:

    I agree that idiomatically “prepare your minds for action” is a bit clumsy. But to me, neither “think straight” nor “think clearly” have the same meaning as it conveys. We have to know what Peter intended by the phrase he chose. If it contains two ideas, ‘getting your mind in gear’ and ‘being ready for action’, then however natural they are as English, neither “think straight” nor “think clearly” will do. They will only do if “prepare your minds for action” is translating more into the original phrase than it will bear.

    I’m not sure about “Roll up your mental shirt sleeves”, though I suspect it conveys the original meaning quite well, as may well “So strip your minds for action”. I doubt a google of either phrase would produce a result, but they both sound natural enough to me.

    By the way, I’ve never heard ‘north’ used the way you report Wayne. Is it regional or subcultural?!

  20. Wayne Leman says:

    Dru asked:

    By the way, I’ve never heard ‘north’ used the way you report Wayne. Is it regional or subcultural?!

    It’s geographically widespread. I know I have heard it on American T.V. news and commentary programs. I *think* I have also heard it on the BBC. I’m sure it has been subcultural but it is rapidly becoming a standard usage with the meaning of ‘increasing,’ the opposite of “south,” which means ‘decreasing.’

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