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An Untranslatable Word: γύναι (Monday with Mounce 183)

Categories Mondays with Mounce

Monday with MounceEvery once in a while we find a Greek word or expression that simply cannot come into English. We want to translate every word, but in some cases, no matter what you choose, you create the wrong impression of what was being said.“Woman” is one of those words.

Jesus heals a crippled woman, and says to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability” (Luke 13:12; ESV). There is no getting around that the fact that the use of “woman” sounds pejorative to our ears, and yet there is nothing pejorative at all in the Greek γύναι. After all, this is what Jesus calls his mother (John 2:4; 19:26). It is the term Jesus uses to address the weeping Mary at the tomb (John 20:15).

Some translations just say “woman” and leave it up to your study to figure out what it really means (NASB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, NRSV, KJV, NET, TEV, NJB). I applaud the NLT for apparently being the only translation that tries to do something about this in their translation, “Dear woman.” Part of me would like to keep “dear” for the emphatic form ὦ γύναι, but then what do you do with just γύναι?

I have a friend who addresses his wife quite regularly as ἡ γύναι, “my wife.” Never did really know how she felt about that, but he meant it affectionately.

I lived my high school and college years in Kentucky, and I picked up the use of “ma'am” as a polite form of address to a “woman” regardless of her age. I use the term of a young waitress and an older person in the church. But to my wife’s ears, ma’am” means “madam” (with its sexual connotations), and I learned early on in marriage not to call Robin “ma’am.”

“Lady” sounds pejorative to me, and “girl” is only a young “woman” and again sounds pejorative.

So what are we left with? Nothing. Sometimes I think we should use something like “friend” or “my friend,” and leave the gender up to the context.

We actually have somewhat the same issue with Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John 21:5 where he calls them παιδία. “Children”? Despite the ESV use of “children,” there is no way Jesus would call out loudly to a bunch of grown fisherman and address them as “children” (also used by NASB, NRSV, KJV, NET). The NIV uses “Friends” (also NJB), the HCSB uses “Men,” and NLT uses the colloquial “Fellows.” What would you say today? “Hey Guys”?

I don’t think there is a clear answer, but “woman” seems to me to be the worst possible option because it misconveys so badly. I seem to remember some instances where a translation simply drops the word. So what is more harmful: give the wrong impression, or drop the word?

For me, I would choose “my friend,” and perhaps “o my friend” for the emphatic construction. For the disciples, I might choose “hey you guys” except that it reminds me of the Goonies, or perhaps “Men.”

Hard choices.

MouncewWilliam D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at
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