Down the Memory Hole or, What’s In a Word?

I have hesitated before posting this because the subject seems to spark anger so easily, even between friends. I don’t mind ticking off someone when necessary, but it should be for a larger purpose than, say, just venting spleen. However, while I myself do not liked to be ticked off, I will admit that it has sometimes resulted in my most fruitful reflections. So read the following, if you choose, with that in mind, and if it upsets you, post a comment. But you are forewarned.

I am back in New York; not, as you might suppose, for the Tribeca Film Festival, nor even to join in the celebration of Spider-Man Week in NYC, but rather on academic business. As regards this blog, I have been frustrated of late by lack of time and resources for doing the sort of writing I would like—I have left off in the middle of a series, “Anglican Formularies and Anglican Authority,” to which I really want to return—while I chase about looking for the earliest editions of St Ephraim the Syrian.

However, that hasn’t stopped me from commenting elsewhere, particularly on a couple postings at Stand Firm. Perhaps it should have—I got so caught up in one that I have made a vow to limit my blogging time to my morning coffee so long as I am away from home (and perhaps after I get back as well).

The particular post that caught my attention concerned an article on an Episcopal church that wants to banish “Lord” from the liturgy—too hierarchical and sexist, it would seem. However, one commenter objected to another’s use of the term ‘priestess’ to describe female Episcopal clergy, comparing it to the ‘n’ word, and things really took off from there. You can judge the quality of the discussion for yourself here if you like. The thread would appear to be (mercifully) over, but the question remains: is the term ‘priestess’, when applied to clergy, inherently offensive? So some believe, no matter the protestations or explanations of others.

My means of dealing with this in the past has been to write ‘women “priests”’, thus using the favored term of those who want a neutral descriptor while employing scare quotes to indicate my dissent. But I will drop in ‘priestess’ from time to time, not to offend but to make the precisely the point that the term, with its pagan and Gnostic connotations, implies. Apparently it is just those connotations that so upset opponents of the word. To which I say, too bad.

I am not suggesting that there are no good, pious, and (in most respects) orthodox women “priests.” Unquestionably there are, and many of them have done their fair share of advancing the Kingdom of God. Nor is it a matter of being perfectly “orthodox” (although the term ‘orthodox’ has become depressingly elastic of late), because no one is. As with sin, if perfect orthodoxy is the test, we all fail. Rather, it is a question of, first, who they are and what they represent, and second, how to express that fairly and clearly in the English language, particularly if you believe, as I and many others do, that the phrase ‘woman priest’ (without the scare quotes) is an oxymoron.

But how did we get here, exactly?


Some years ago, when I was still not long out of graduate school, I took a temporary position at a New England college that included teaching the second semester of first year Latin. I was surprised to learn from the professor who taught the first semester that he had stopped using the standard college introductory Latin textbook, known simply as Wheelock from its first author’s name. I was even more surprised when I found out why—objections had been made to Wheelock’s sexual bias. Apparently, practice Latin composition sentences such as “the sailor gives the flowers to the girl” were deemed offensive. Entire papers had been given at the American Philological Association on the problem of Wheelock’s alleged sexism. The book eventually went out of print, but has since been revised (all traces of sexism presumably removed) and has returned, now purged, to the college classroom.

This was not my first heads up on the effects of ideology on language, but it was the first time I had encountered it in the actual instruction of a classical language, one whose very logic, not to mention the culture whence it came, was deeply bound up with distinctions of gender. What, I wondered, will the sheltered minds of freshly minted Latin students make of real Latin authors? How will they cope with the shock of Catullus or Juvenal or Ovid, who would all rank pretty high on a scale of political incorrectness? Dear, dear.


Of course, language changes, slowly or rapidly, over time. What is acceptable in one era is denounced in another, often rightly so. Thus using the notorious ‘n’ word, considered unexceptionable in, say, Victorian England (see the original lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan, for example), is now justly condemned (unless you’re Chris Rock). Lenny Bruce was wrong; some terms are not “just words.” Don Imus got what he deserved.

On the other hand, some terms that ought to be offensive end up becoming innocuous on the sly, so to speak. Thus no one objects to ‘snafu’, despite its acronymic origins. ‘Snafu’ having lost its edge, Steven Spielberg needed something else sufficiently earthy for Saving Private Ryan and found ‘fubar’, which ironically, thanks to the movie, is on its way to becoming equally unexceptionable.

As well, some changes are inevitable, either due to usage or logic. ‘Data’ is now a singular noun, like it or not. Then again, some changes, particularly those imposed by, say, the style manual of The New York Times, are just ridiculous. In a recent column, David Brooks (or his editor) used both ‘milleniums’ as a plural (which will always make me cringe) and ‘epiphenomena’ as a singular.

Are the changes in gendered nouns demanded by today’s culture similarly foolish? Maybe, maybe not. ‘Fire fighter’ rather than ‘fire man’ seems pretty harmless to me, and there is some justice to making the change. I don’t care all that much if a woman declares that she is not an actress but an actor, which has become the norm.

But these examples—‘actor/actress’ and ‘fireman/fire fighter’—still indicate a profound change in our society. Sometimes language reflects change; sometimes it is used to effect—or, more ominously, to enforce—change. And when I hear ‘priestess’ denounced—a word that, in virtually any other context, would be completely unworthy of comment—well, George Orwell, call your office. The thought police are on the move, and another bit of human language is on its way down the memory hole.


Of course, inconsistencies are inevitable. They have been there all along. In the example from the older version of Wheelock given above, the Latin for ‘sailor’, nauta, is in fact feminine in form, even while masculine in meaning (a ‘good sailor’ would be nauta bonus, not nauta bona). In Greek, ‘-os’ is usually a masculine ending, specifically the second declension, and many masculine second declension nouns have a feminine, first declension equivalent, such asdoulos for a male slave and doule for a female. However, ‘deacon’ in Greek is normally diakonos for both male and female (although the feminine diakonissa is rarely attested). Thus the famous deaconess Phoebe of Romans 16.1 is diakonos Phoebe in Greek, although she is clearly a woman. On the other hand, there is a gender distinction in Latin; the younger Pliny, in his famous letter to Trajan (10.96) of 111 AD describing his trial of Christians, mentions that he tortured two ministrae, which has always (so far as I know) been translated into English as ‘deaconesses’. But the Greek canons of the early church are quite clear on a distinction between male and female deacons (female deacons or deaconesses are to be numbered among the laity), and a foolish consistency in such matters would make Margaret Thatcher “the former Prime Ministra,” which would be ridiculous.


In any case. we are not concerned here with deacon/deaconess, which does not seem to generate so much heat (presumably because, despite its classical origins, it has become a uniquely Christian term), but with priest/priestess, which does.

Unfortunately, the word ‘priest’ in English—that is, the spelling p-r-i-e-s-t—must do double-duty in a manner that often causes confusion. On the one hand, it is a contraction of presbyteros, ‘presbyter’ or ‘elder.’ (As Milton, himself a Puritan but chafing under the ecclesiastical regime of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, put it in one of his more acerbic moments, “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.”) On the other, it has come to stand for the Greek hiereus (Latin sacerdos), ‘sacrificer’, as well. (Those who object to “sacedotalism” might consider that most Latin translations of the Prayer Book, including those given more-or-less official approval, translate “priest” as sacerdos. All Christian priesthood is but a reflection of, or participation in, Christ’s one final priesthood, just as the Eucharistic sacrifice is but an extension of his one final sacrifice.) And as with doulos/doule, there are feminine equivalents for both, presbytera and hiereia. If gender distinctions for clergy are inherently invidious, however, then there is no escape from our dilemma by using presbytera, which in any case has come to mean the wife of a Greek Orthodox priest. There were any number of hiereia or priestesses in the Mediterranean world (though none, it is worth noting, in Israelite religion), but that suffers from a similar difficulty.

There’s no getting around it. ‘Priestess’ is a completely unexceptionable word in virtually any other context. Any book on classical Mediterranean religion will have it, regardless of the author’s ideological bent. The complaint against ‘priestess’ in a Christian context ultimately requires bending language to fit an agenda, one that many will not accept.


Is it possible, in the debate over the “ordination” of women, to come up with language that is necessarily and inherently demeaning? Sure. I have, in fact, seen at least one term that I will not repeat here because it is so inflammatory, and deliberately so. Perhaps its creator wanted to associate the “ordination” of women with fertility religion. But if that was its premise, the result is only an ugly neologism, insulting and pointless, designed only to express anger and pick a fight. That is the equivalent of the ‘n’ word.

But ‘priestess’? Not so, although I am sure there are those who would use it that way. ‘Actor’ or ‘fire figher’ or ‘Prime Minister’ are one thing; ‘priest’ is something else entirely. As C. S. Lewis put it, in Priestesses in the Church?,

As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body . . . The point is that unless “equal” means “interchangeable”, equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions.

. . . and ‘woman priest’ is just such a fiction.

If there is anything inherent in the use of ‘priestess’ to describe female clergy, it is an objection to the very idea of a ‘woman priest’ (without the scare quotes), and those who complain about it are, ultimately, not really concerned with anything insulting or demeaning; they are simply objecting to our objection. To which again I say, too bad. We’re not going to stop. That many, most, or even all such women go about their business either not knowing the Gnostic or even pagan connotations we see in their work, or denying it if they do, is not the point. We won’t deny it, and we will not accept that it is, in any and every instance, impolite to point it out.

So I’ll stick to my scare quotes. I want to generate light, not heat. But equally, I will not shy away from a word just because someone does not like the shades of meaning that lie behind it. That’s why it’s there.


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