Friday, December 07, 2007


Wise guys

Reported in yesterday's Financial Times:

The panel, initially dubbed a "wise men's committee", will be approved by European heads of government at the December 14 summit in Brussels, but it will instead be officially known as a "reflection group".

This follows expressions of concern from some governments and EU commissioners that the term "wise men" implied an absence of women on the panel.

As it would. So why, in this post-phallocratic age, would anyone suggest calling it that in the first place?

Of course nobody did. The unwanted implication is entirely the result of the inept transposition into English of a French expression, comité des sages, which itself does not imply any such "absence of women".

In French, gender does not follow sex in the same way as in English. The feminine pronoun elle can perfectly well refer to a man and the masculine il to a woman, where the gender of the antecedent noun so requires.

Similarly, the fact that "sage" is a masculine noun doesn't imply that the wise ones have to be male. So translating "sages" as "wise men" isn't even literal.

(Earlier post on bizarre effects of retaining German gender in English translation).

The equivalent of the French sages in international English would appear to be Eminent Persons.

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