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a ‘child’ or a ‘youth’ or a ‘teenage man’ or a παῖς or a נער

July 20, 2013

“Just don’t call them children.”

That’s the final sentence, the last paragraph, the final conclusion of L.A. Times reporter Michael McGough in his recent op-ed piece, “Was Trayvon Martin a ‘child’ or a ‘youth’?”

To be sure, McGough would not consider himself a child. He doesn’t want anyone calling the late Trayvon Martin a child either. And he gets into this broader discussion about (English) words for children. Which makes me wonder, again, how he can police language so. In Greek and Hebrew, in some of the biblical languages, there is more freedom, more poetry, more narrative metaphor, than McGough would allow us.

In the gospel of Mark, for example, there’s this use of the term paideia (or παιδεία) around which Werner Jaeger wrote three volumes. (This is in English translation by Gilbert Highet.) Here, for the one term, there’s a range of meanings, a range of ages, from infancy through the teen years into the 20s even. Yesterday, I blogged elsewhere a bit about how Mark’s gospel portrays Jesus as being indignant at adults who fail to recognize the value of παιδία. That’s Mark 10:13-14, but the writer of the gospel of John (Jn. 21:5) even has Jesus calling these same adults παιδία.

This gets us recalling the Septuagint (Greek translation of) Genesis, and the story of Jacob and his twelve sons. In Genesis 43:8, Judah is appealing to his father Israel, saying, “Send the child, the youth, the teenager, with me.” The Greek phrase is παιδάριον. This is for the Hebrew word with a very similar range of meanings and age: נער. Later in the text, the Hellene translation adds some wordplay that actually exploits the ambiguities of the Greek word. It also can mean “youth in training” and even “servant apprentice” and even sometimes “slave.” So the Greek text in Genesis 43:18 has the older brothers suggesting that Joseph treat them as childslaves in Egypt (a sort of literary foreshadowing of the events of the second of the five books of Moses): ἡμᾶς εἰς παῖδας (for לעבדים). And then in Genesis 43:28, there an alliterative wordplay, an appositive, suggesting that “your child-servant” is “our father”:  ὁ παῖς σου ὁ πατὴρ ἡμῶν (for לעבדך לאבינו).

I’m trying to suggest that policing language, that disallowing phrases like “child” and “children” for 17 year olds, is ironically the very sort of manipulation of language that McGough is accusing others of doing. Whether our present languages or the ones of the ancients, the terms for children can be intentionally very expansive.

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