The Pope on condoms and the responsible prostitute

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The Pope has changed his mind about condoms: they can be used after all!

That's what the world's media has decided to splash over the front pages this weekend. ("Pope Benedict's condom U-turn" said the headline over Andrew Brown's blog piece at The Guardian.) They are being scandalously irresponsible as usual: the Pope has said nothing of the kind. Rather, he grudgingly acknowledged, in one answer during a book-length interview, that perhaps in some cases perhaps the use of a condom by a prostitute (una prostituta) might be "a first step toward a moralization, a first act of responsibility, on the way toward recovering awareness of the fact that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants." Absolutely no sign of a Catholic Church volte face on contraception there. But I have a linguistic question: what did he mean when he used the word prostituta?

Some sources this Sunday morning are claiming that the morphosyntactically feminine word prostituta is sex-neutral; others (like the blog commenter Geremia on the National Catholic Register) say it means only "female prostitute". Yet the official translation of the Pope's remark translates it as "male prostitute". The three claims flatly contradict each other. Which is the most defensible, on the basis of linguistic facts?

I do not know the answer (I know relatively little Italian). I ask merely for information. Here is the relevant passage from the forthcoming book-length interview that is the basis for all the stories:

Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati, ad esempio quando una prostituta utilizza un profilattico, e questo può essere il primo passo verso una moralizzazione, un primo atto di responsabilità per sviluppare di nuovo la consapevolezza del fatto che non tutto è permesso e che non si può far tutto ciò che si vuole. Tuttavia, questo non è il modo vero e proprio per vincere l'infezione dell'Hiv. È veramente necessaria una umanizzazione della sessualità.

As translated in the forthcoming book itself (read it in the Catholic World Report here), the English equivalent is supposed to be this:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

This is Language Log, not Church Dogma And Sexual Repression Log, so we are not going to get into the moral or religious issues (the comments policy will be enforced in ways as ruthless as those of the Spanish Inquisition). But some of the odd things about the foggy passage just quoted might be relevant to my linguistic puzzle. One is the fact that using a condom generally means putting one on one's own penis, and if that is to count as an assumption of responsibility, Pope Benedict must be envisaging an infected male prostitute whose service consists of active penetration and ejaculation of a passively participating client. I know very little about the world of prostitution, but it is my understanding that it is much more typical for it to be the other way round, in which case the prostitute would not be using the condom, but asking the client to use it, and the motivation would be the selfish one of protecting the prostitute's own health, hence not an assumption of responsibility at all.

Then again, the remark comes from an old man who knows even less about paying for sex than I do, and perhaps he is just befuddled and the issue of who does what to whom in a prostitution encounter is irrelevant.

So back to the lexical question itself. Tell me, you readers with a native knowledge of Standard Italian: is there a morphosyntactically masculine word prostituto that he could have used instead? And is the word prostituta (i) semantically feminine, (ii) semantically neutral, or (iii) semantically masculine? Because if (i) or (ii) is the case, I simply do not see where the decision to render it as "male prostitute" came from.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    According to the BBC, the quote comes originally from a book (Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times) which

    is based on a series of interview [sic] the Pope gave the German Catholic journalist, Peter Seewald, earlier this year.

    The book's English-language website and's page for the German-language version (Licht der Welt: Der Papst, die Kirche und die Zeichen der Zeit. Ein Gespräch mit Peter Seewald), also being published on Nov. 24, indicate that the BBC got this much right.

    Since the native language of Benedict XVI (né Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger) is German, and the journalist in question is also German-speaking, I imagine that the interview in question was originally conducted in German. If so, then the version that Geoff quotes must be an Italian translation created by the Vatican, and Geoff's question can be extended: What did Benedict say in the German original, and did that version specify the prostitute's sex? Who translated the German original to Italian, and did that translation follow the original in this respect? or did it add a detail that had been left unspecified? or did it invert the sex and sense of the original? (And it's also possible that the Italian version was translated from an English translation rather than from the German original…)

    [Thanks, Mark; a very substantive contribution. Naturally, Ratzinger would have talked to a German journalist in his native language. The writing up and preliminary editing would have been done in German. The next step could have been to prepare translations simultaneously into English (for the largest bookselling markets) and Italian (for the Vatican's purposes), or possibly even first into English and from there into Italian. So there is a real question here about what the Pope uttered as well as about what he meant; and we may never be able to answer it, unless Seewald helps out. —GKP]

    [Update from myl: An article in the NYT for 11/22/2010, "Pope’s Comments on Condoms Sow Confusion", asserts that

    …in the Italian excerpt published Saturday in the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, the pope says that condom use can be “justified” in some cases, citing the example of the prostitute. The Rev. Joseph Fessio, whose Ignatius Press published the English-language edition of the book, said that the Italian translation was inaccurate, and that the original German translated more directly as “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals.” The Italian edition of the book also refers to a female prostitute, while the German and English editions use the term “male prostitute.”

    Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, which broke an embargo to publish the excerpts, said he thought that the gender of the prostitute would be corrected to male in future Italian editions. “The important thing is that the pope approved only the German text,” he added. Benedict and his interlocutor spoke in German.


  2. Luis said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    I'm confused too, because the interpretation of the Pope's words seems to depend on which country you are in. For instance, Spanish news outlets (such as El País in this article) translate una prostituta (It.) as una prostituta (Sp.). As a Spanish speaker, I'm 100% convinced that the latter can only mean a female prostitute (in fact, the dictionary of the Real Academia observes that prostituta (Sp.) inflects for gender, so a male prostitute is prostituto). On the other hand, Le Monde has chosen to translate it as un homme prostitué.

    Now, the article from El País was written by a correspondent, whereas the article from Le Monde came from a news agency (AFP, Agence France-Press), so one could imagine that the latter is not a direct translation from Italian, but rather a translation from English.

  3. suz said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    Well, I don't speak Italian, but my native tongue is German. If used in the singular, Prostituierte is unambiguously feminine, no surprise here. There is also a male equivalent, Prostituierter, which I feel is extremely rare (I can't recall having heard it, but it is renders some hits on Google with a male denotation).

    If used in the plural (and without a definite article, i.e. in 'generic reference'), Prostituierte would be used, regardless of the biological gender of the members of the group referred to. Semantically, I would say, they are still be overwhelmingly feminine. (But I guess this is due to the "idea" that prostitution involves females getting paid for sex – and male prostitution is still somewhat a taboo.)

  4. suz said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:31 am

    On second thoughts, there is also a singular, indefinite male form, ein Prostituierter 'a.male prostitute'. This also renders several hits on Google, some of which lead to news items (here by a German TV station) and cite the passage from his book:

    Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben, wenn etwa ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet, und dies kann ein erster Schritt hin zu einer Moralisierung sein, […]
    There might be legitimate individual cases, if, for instance, a male prostitute uses a condon. And this can be a first step towards a moralization […]'

  5. Ellis said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    'Prostituta' is certainly only feminine, and 'prostituto' certainly exists.

  6. SeanH said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:56 am

    I looked on the snowclone database, but there does not yet seem to be an entry for "this is Language Log, not X Log". Or is it merely a running joke?

  7. Shannon said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Prostituta is feminine and would not be used to refer to a man. A man could be called prosituto, or perhaps "accompagnatore." Actually, on the Italian version of Big Brother one of the participants in this season has become infamous because he apparently worked as an accompagnatore.

    I have no idea what language the original interview used, but the current Pope is not exactly reknowned for his exceptionally fluent Italian.

  8. rgove said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    it is my understanding that it is much more typical for it to be the other way round, in which case the prostitute would not be using the condom, but asking the client to use it, and the motivation would be the selfish one of protecting the prostitute's own health

    It is my understanding that though active -> passive transmission of the virus is somewhat more likely, both directions are possible. So a prostitute in the passive role is not necessarily being entirely "selfish" by requiring condom use.

  9. GeorgeW said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    Does a Papal statement have any authoritative force if said in other than Latin? Catholics might be sexing on thin ice until the Latin version is released.

    [(myl) FWIW, the language of the pronouncement is not mentioned in Wikipedia's list of (five) Conditions for Papal Infallibility.]

  10. Aaron Toivo said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    I know very little about the world of prostitution, but it is my understanding that it is much more typical for it to be the other way round, in which case the prostitute would not be using the condom …
    I am acquainted with a man who was a prostitute for some years, and he reports that in his experience, contrary to common expectations, a larger proportion of clients of male prostitutes seek to receive penetration than give it. (And that anal sex in either direction is not necessarily a majority of all requests, as a very broad range of acts are sought by clients.)

    But whether we could expect the Pope to know about this is questionable indeed.

  11. piero said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    I am italian and I would confirm 'prostituta' is definitely feminine term, even if 'prostituto' is not common and other words (such as 'accompagnatore' or its english translation 'escort') are more frequently used.

    I am also a medicine student and I agree with rgove, who says there are several transmission modes of HIV for all partners in both heterosexual and homosexual (male and female) intercourse.

    One is the fact that using a condom generally means putting one on one's own penis, and if that is to count as an assumption of responsibility

    I think whoever participates to a sexual act which involves at least one penis can USE a condom, wearing it by himself or asking his/her partner to wear it. Maybe the English or French translator thought a woman could not do it and 'corrected' her original gender.

  12. John said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Not-quite-fluent Italian speaker, and I interpret this to mean the the prostitute requires the john to use a condom.

  13. Yakusa Cobb said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Googling multilingually, there seems to be little doubt (from the information currently at our disposal) that:
    1) The original language of the book is German.
    2) The term the Pope used was 'männliche Prostituierte', which unequivocally means 'male prostitute.'
    Now I'm not a native speaker of Italian, but I'm pretty sure that there is no way that 'ein männliche Prostituierte' can be translated as 'una prostituta.'
    OT: By the way, how many of you prickled at my use of a dangling participle in my first sentence?

    [Thanks, Yakusa. It seems clear that the Pope did specify "male prostitute"; so now the puzzle is why the Italian version came out with the strictly female-referring translation. —GKP]

  14. Emilio said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    "Prostituta" only refers to a female sex-worker. It could be used for a man only figuratively: I could say of a politician "è una prostituta", meaning "he sells out". The masculine prostituto exists but is uncommon. A male sex-worker is more likely referred to as a gigolò, or with the colloquial marchettaro. A difference might possibly be that while a gigolò could have both men and women as clients, a marchettaro is prototypically thought to have male clients.

  15. Maria said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    I had the same question today! Argentine newspapers used "prostituta", which is only feminine. Yet the New York Times reported it as "male prostitute". I think those are both from official translations, so I'm baffled.

  16. boynamedsue said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    As others have said, there is no ambiguity in the Italian text. The prostitute is female.

    The pope is a completely fluent (if very heavily accented) Italian speaker. If there was any mistake in the Italian text, he would know about it (assuming he has read it).

  17. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Following up on Aaron Toivo's comment: I've known several hustlers/escorts, have read a good bit about the life, and even have a documentary film about hustlers in L.A. (101 Rent Boys). As Toivo says, many different services are offered and requested, but for anal sex many more clients want to be penetrated than want to penetrate; there are more bottoms than tops in the world of gay sex, and in any case the way that male prostitution is configured is that the primary thing the hustler is selling is his penis (though actual encounters can cover a lot of other territory).

    [OK; given this sociosexological detail, we have the Pope envisaging a hired male penetrator putting on a condom to ensure that his penetratee client is not infected, which does give us the "moralization" of which he speaks. And since he did not specify that the male prostitute was in the gay trade, he could have intended to cover the somewhat rarer case of male hustlers serving female clients, which means in principle he might have been allowing that occasionally a pregnancy might be prevented as an unintended side effect of a morally motivated unselfish act. This is all a coherent, I think; and leaves as the main puzzle what I am increasingly forced to see as a disastrous mistranslation into Italian. —GKP]

  18. John Cowan said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

    using a condom generally means putting one on one's own penis

    Really? I had understood that it is not unknown for someone else to put the condom on, either manually or otherwise.

    [Accepted as a friendly amendment: I should have said "putting one on (or having someone put one on) one's own penis". My point remains: we don't usually speak of someone using a condom simply in virtue of having sex with someone who is wearing one, do we? —GKP]

  19. Sid Smith said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Not really to the point, but Italian has a number of words that are sort-of intersexual: eg, un giornalista, un poeta.

    In an Anthony Burgess novel, one of the characters teases a poet with being "feminine in form but masculine in gender".

  20. Jo said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    La Repubblica – not to mention l'Osservatore romano, the Vatican's news organ – quotes him as saying "prostituta", which is definitely female (yes, "prostituto" does exist). But various Italian websites have picked up on the discrepancy between the translation and what appears to be the German original: for example, .

    [(myl) Your link has a cartoon worth reproducing here:

    I'm not sure where the original credit for this image belongs.]

  21. John said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    I think we've covered this a bit before, but Italian does indeed use some masculines as effective generics, mainly in professions that have been traditionally male and are no longer. So, for example, the mayor in the town where I work in the summer (I'm an archaeologist) is "il sindaco" despite being a woman.

    [(myl) See here for some discussion of developments in Italian and Spanish.]

    I wonder though whether Sua Santità would have picked up on the subtlety of the Italian here. I would bet that he doesn't talk too often about prostitutes…though I could be wrong.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    In French you can talk about une prostituée (female) or, less commonly, un prostitué (male), both having male customers. If Le Monde wrote "un homme prostitué" (literally 'a prostituted man') when "un prostitué" would have been enough to indicate a male, it is likely that it was translated from the original German mentioned above, "ein männliche Prostituierte", and so was the English text with "a male prostitute". Also, since this is not a topic one expects the Pope to be familiar with, and discussions of prostitution are most often about female prostitutes, the German and French phrases, which unlike English do not require the addition of a word specifically referring to a male, seem to be deliberately chosen to emphasize that the topic is indeed that of male prostitution. In addition, the Pope's words referring to the prostitute "using" a condom, not requesting that the client use one, are most compatible with a reference to a male prostitute. Perhaps the Pope is aware that a male would be in a better position to control condom use than a female, or he thinks that male prostitution is an exceptional case.

    What is strange is that the Italian and Spanish translations (the Spanish one perhaps based on the Italian one) use the feminine term, perhaps out of disbelief that the Pope would appear to condone not only condom use, but male prostitution. As it stands, the Pope's position seems to be that it is OK for two men to use a condom (to prevent infection during "sinful" acts which cannot possibly lead to pregnancy), but a man and a woman can't, even during "lawful" acts (because any measure which prevents pregnancy is "sinful", even if it would also prevent infection).

  23. jfruh said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    Just to add to the gender-linguistic fun, there is a prophylactic designed to be inserted into an orifice of a passive partner that is universally known (in English) as a "female condom" even though it's often used by men having anal sex.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Sorry, the German text posted above has:

    Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben, wenn etwa ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet, …

    So the Pope did not use männlicher, but ein and the ending -er are definitely masculine. The beginning of the sentence: "Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben" shows that the Pope is thinking of "isolated cases" of male prostitution.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

    Papal "pronouncements" in Latin: these refer to official pronouncements for the benefit of all Catholics, such as Encyclicals. What the Pope says to a journalist in the course of an interview does not have official status and therefore does not need to be translated into Latin.

  26. Accompagnatore said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    The priesthood is much more familiar with male prostitutes than female. That Ratzinger would refer to male sexworkers specifically is unsurprising.

    Former male prostitute (AmE) here…

  27. John said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    My point remains: we don't usually speak of someone using a condom simply in virtue of having sex with someone who is wearing one, do we? —GKP

    In my American English, either party (or both) involving the use of a condom "use" the condom. I hear women speaking of their own use and–given the scarcity of the female condom on the market these days–have to assume they're talking of the male with whom they're engaged actually wearing it.

  28. Lane said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    It seems the Pope's Italian, unlike his doctrinal teaching, isn't infalliable. My guess is that he knows there are Italian words that end in "-ta" or "-ma" that can be masculine. These tend to come from Greek: poeta, poema, planeta, programma and others are all masculine. I'm guessing that he might have overgeneralized this rule of Italian to "prostituta" and so overlooked the mistake in the translation. The "una" should have been a giveaway, but it didn't trip his mistake-meter.

    And who made the translation mistake? Maybe a native Italian speaker who saw "Prostituierter" and thought that it simply must be a female prostitute, or who assumed the Pope misspoke.

    Not to get too off-topic, but I've noticed this Pope, who is quite controversial, seems to be called Ratzinger a lot more than I remember his predecessor being called Vojtyla. It seems calculated to deny him the dignity we normally expect to be accorded to any Pope, whatever our standing with regard to the Church.

  29. SeanH said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

    Lane: is it reasonable to assume that the Pope himself oversaw the translation? That seems unlikely to me, just based on his position as a head of state and leader of a major religion – surely the Vatican has enough competent speakers of Italian on hand to delegate that sort of thing.

  30. Amy Reynaldo said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    I concur with John at 3:38. Single women and heterosexual couples who rely on condoms to prevent pregnancy or disease transmission speak of "using condoms" without regard to agency. "We use condoms" works fine for a M/F couple, as does "Of course I use condoms" for a single woman.

  31. Joe Fineman said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    To increase further the range of possibilities, one might note that there are condoms (sold in the U.S. under the opaque trade name "Reality") that are designed to be inserted into the vagina or rectum rather than worn on the penis. [They have the — shall we say moral? — advantage that they are more likely to be used, in that they (1) are an option of the partner who is at greater risk and (2) can be installed before sexual arousal.] Such condoms are "used" by the receptive partner even in the most naive sense of the word.

  32. figleaf said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    Sounds like the ambiguous gendering of una prostituta has been reduced to a problem of mistranslation. Or possibly a problem of euphemism if, say, some of the target languages are culturally less tolerant and/or more prim about the possibility of male prostitution.

    In which case, as John, Aaron Toivo, and others have hinted, it might be fun to delve into the function of the word "use" in "the prostitute would not be using the condom, but asking the client to use it."

    I am so not a linguist, nor do I claim competency with language tools. And I'm not about to trust Google's page counts as a reliable source. But it looks as though "he used a condom," "we used a condom," and "she used a condom" are all used with some frequency.

    Also, considering that a restaurateur would say "I used plastic wrap to cover the customer's leftovers" it wouldn't seem unusual for a prostitute to say he or she uses a condom to cover a customer's penis.

    There are other instances where receptive partners are presumed to be condom users but the most glaring would probably be the controversial ordinance in New York that police may arrest a woman on suspicion of prostitution if she has more than a certain number of condoms in her purse.

    Final note: if I was a linguist I'd probably write a post about how the assumption that being the penetrating partner makes one the active agent conditions the way we employ the word "use" in "the prostitute would not be using the condom, but asking the client to use it."


    p.s. you learn something new every day at Language Log. Even though I've been a fairly active sex blogger for years I hadn't known that more same-sex customers seek penetration than seek to penetrate. Knowing that makes sense of a number of differences in rates of condom acceptance between those who are straight and those who are not.

  33. Aldo Vai said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

    I confirm "prostituta" is feminine and not masculine. I am an Italian mother tongue and a professional in translation and advertising. If it's a translation mistake, I would fire a few people on the spot; while if it's been done on purpose, then an interesting discussion would open up: why?

  34. Simon said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    My mother tongue is Italian.

    "Prostituta" is unequivocally feminine. I've never heard nor read it used in any other way. Occasionally homosexuals who like to act 100% feminine may use it in that particular way, but that's a very specific and context-dependent usage.

    The equivalent masculine term in Italian (as in, a MALE who sells sexual services) would be "gigolò" or a slightly cleaner "accompagnatore" (="(male) escort"). Surprisingly, the most obvious version (prostitutO) is technically correct but rare.

    In any case, the translation "when a MALE prostitute uses a condom" is unquestionably wrong.

  35. suz said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    @marie-lucie: The first part of the sentence Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben, wenn etwa ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet, … refers to one of the exceptional cases in which the use of condoms might be a legitimate option (according to the Pope); it does not refer to any (supposedly) exceptionality of male prostitution.

    [On a different note, I'd like to apologize for the flaws in my earlier posts and the translation. Put it down to the lack of coffee on a sunday morning. But I take it we've established the subject was male prositution in what appears to be a German original.]

  36. Ken Brown said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

    Either party using a condom is statistically likely to reduce the risk of infection for the population. I don't know much about Italian, and even less about the business practices of prostitutes, but I do know a bit about microbiology and epidemiology. If this hyppthetical prostitute defends himself against infection, he also defends his future customers.

    The Pope might think that the best thing would be to give up prostitution entirely, but if that's not happening then it would also be good to reduce the chance of infecting others. Which is what I read the Popes comment as saying.

  37. J. Goard said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 9:41 pm


    Sorry, the German text posted above has:

    Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben, wenn etwa ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet, …

    So the Pope did not use männlicher, but ein and the ending -er are definitely masculine. The beginning of the sentence: "Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben" shows that the Pope is thinking of "isolated cases" of male prostitution.

    Well, that's quite a helpful correction. Thanks! German männlich covers English manly and mannish as well as male, and I was going to comment that in my nonnative German, I processed the grammatically feminine männliche Prostituierte as 'mannish prostitute', i.e. the kind that's probably a girl but suspicious.

  38. lukas said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    "Ein Prostituierter," though grammatically masculine, may well refer to a person of indefinite gender. This usage (the "generic masculine") is frowned upon today for reasons of political correctness, but I am not surprised to see an old conservative use it in this fashion.

    [Thanks, that's useful. Yet more confusion! Paul Vallely has now made this point about German, though in slightly less detail, inThe Independent (here):

    What has added to the uncertainty is that the Pope, speaking in German, used the word ein Prostituierter, which signifies a prostitute of the masculine gender. But in German the grammatical masculine is also the default when speaking about any human individual in general.


  39. marie-lucie said,

    November 21, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    suz, thank you for the correction.

    lukas, very interesting.

    What about the German journalist who conducted the interview? did he understand that the prostitute was male, or equally likely to be male or female? did he comment at all on the Pope's use of an old-fashioned term (if that was what it was)? were there other comments or reviews in the German press about what the grammatically masculine word might actually signify, or is it assumed that everyone would know whether it was generic or not?

    According to suz, the "exceptional cases" refer to a prostitute (let's set aside their sex) using a condom. Are we to understand that the Pope think that this use is exceptional in the case of any prostitutes, and constitutes a praiseworthy moral act because it protects the client (regardless of the fact that for a female prostitute this act also prevents pregnancy, as well as protecting her from infection)?

  40. lukas said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 4:49 am

    The term itself is not old-fashioned, using a masculine noun to refer to a person that might be female is (if that is what he did.) As it stands, the passage is ambiguous, and it has been interpreted both ways by German speakers.

  41. Jo said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:39 am

    @Lane: In Italy, the previous pontiff was/is very frequently called Wojtyla in everyday conversation, and often in print; I moved here during his papacy and had a hard time at first figuring out who was being referred to, since in the US he was always John Paul II. I think this popular use of the secular name _was_ a first with him, and whether it sounds affectionate or disparaging depends a lot on context. That doesn't explain, of course, why Benedict XVI is so often referred to as Ratzinger in the English-speaking world, unless the Italian media have a stronger influence than they did five or ten years ago (I doubt it). I would guess that in part it does indeed have a lot to do with hostility, but also with the fact that he was a powerful and well-known figure even as a cardinal.

    Returning to topic, I find it hard to believe that even a poor speaker of Italian (which the Pope is not, despite his heavy accent) would group "prostituta" in with "poeta", "programma", etc. But as others have pointed out, it's unlikely that the translation even crossed his desk.

  42. Thomas said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    The original German, though syntactically masculine, seemed semantically neutral to me, a non-native speaker; and I just confirmed it with my girlfriend, who is mother tongue German.

    I have a very hard time imagining that Ratzinger is unaware that in his native Bavaria, controlled by the official Catholic party since the end of the war, prostitution of is legal and the use of condoms is required. This holds for both "weibliche Prosituierte" and "männliche Prostituierte" ("female prostitutes" and "male prostitutes", in the official language).

    @marie-lucie: it's true that the distinction between "un prostitué" and "une prostituée" is clear in French, but the syntactically feminine "une pute" can be applied to men, too.

    Which leads me to wonder, is it possible Ratzinger's quote was cleaned up? Maybe the old reactionary had said "etwa wenn eine Huhe ein Kondom verwendet".

    As for using the Pope's given name, it's been the practice on the Left since before Marx.

  43. lukas said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    But in German the grammatical masculine is also the default when speaking about any human individual in general.

    Well, sometimes (pace the p.c. brigade). It is definitely more idiomatic for plural nouns, though, and with "Prostituierte(‍r)," a word that is rarely used in the grammatical masculine, it is downright jarring.

    "Ein Prostituierter" gets 2,000 ghits versus 300,000 for "Eine Prostituierte," and most of those 2,000 discuss this recent bit of Popery.

  44. marie-lucie said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 5:12 pm


    it's true that the distinction between "un prostitué" and "une prostituée" is clear in French, but the syntactically feminine "une pute" can be applied to men, too.

    In the absence of a specifically masculine context, the grammatically feminine noun "une pute" would be interpreted as referring to a female. There are other derogatory words (especially in slang) which use the "wrong" gender: for instance "une frappe" usually refers to a man, "un cheval" to a woman.

    Which leads me to wonder, is it possible Ratzinger's quote was cleaned up? Maybe the old reactionary had said "etwa wenn eine Huhe ein Kondom verwendet".

    The Pope uttered the controversial words during one of a series of interviews recorded for a book about his personal opinions on a variety of important topics. The words about "a prostitute using a condom" were immediately followed by the Pope's interpretation of this use as showing some moral sense, etc. In such a context, it is most unlikely that he would be using slang words. He was not telling salacious anecdotes in a bar.

  45. Paul Zukowski said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    Glad I was wearing protection while slipping through this discussion.

  46. suz said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    @Thomas: that's one of the reasons why intuition is sometimes not fully reliable. I'm not sure if ein Prostituierter can be semantically neutral (and it definitely isn't for me), probably because we have a very clear preference for and higher frequency of eine Prostituierte (f.) when speaking of a female (or when referring to prostitution in general). And while it is certainly true that a lot of 'generic masculines' in German can and do in fact refer to persons of either sex, I'm still not convinced this works for prostitute, too.

    I guess the 'generic masculine', if neutral for sex, works like a hyperonym to start with, which is identical the masculine hyponym, while the female hyperonym would be the respective feminine form (i.e, feminie derived from masculine). This fails with 'generic feminines', i.e. where the hyperonym is grammatically feminine. A case in point would be die Person 'person' (f.) or die Geisel 'hostage' (f.) for which there are no masculine forms (and don't have to be as they are semantically neutral). Another case is die Katze 'cat' (f.) for which we have a masculine hyponym, der Kater (m.), which, however, is not obligatory when referring to a male cat.

    In theory, then, ein Prostituierter should be the hyperonym of a prostitute of either sex. I suspect, however, that ein Prostituierter (m.) is derived from eine Prostituierte (f.) (some etymology of ein Prostituierter might be needed here) and has probably not 'made' it to function as a cover term for prostitutes. On the other hand, if eine Prostituierte should work as a 'generic feminine', it should be semantically neutral, but I don't think it is.

    Interesting stuff.

  47. Read Weaver said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    I'll be interested to hear what the Vatican says this was supposed to mean, but until that happens, I'm assuming male prostitute (with male client) was what was intended, because it requires the least change in Vatican teaching: condoms aren't allowed when they interfere with procreation, but if procreation isn't possible anyway, then they're not (or less of) a problem.

  48. J. Goard said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

    So, native German speakers:

    What about my confusion at männliche Prostituierte, related to the multiple senses of männlich, where English has a three-way distinction between manly, mannish and male?

    If you hear, let's say,

    meine männliche Schwester

    is your first thought that the speaker has:

    (a) a brother who acts in a sisterly way, or
    (b) a sister who looks like a man?

  49. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    This whole issue of "prostituta" in the Italian version of the book might just be a spell-check change that didn't get caught. The translator could have seen the male ending in the German word, typed in the (apparently rare) masculine version "prostituto" in Italian, and gone on typing without noticing that spell check had altered the word before the translator was on the next line. Or an editor might have carelessly accepted a spell-check recommendationn.

    Would the Pope have personally read the various translations as part of the publishing process? It seems unlikely to me.

    Also, if any editor along the way ran spell-check blind and clicked "change" every time a word came up as misspelled, then the translator might have put in the right word only to have been undercut by an editor's blind faith in technology.

  50. suz said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:43 pm

    Okay, here is an update on this issue, as the passage has given rise to quite some confusion. According to Germany's equivalent of BBC, the ARD, book author Peter Seewald confirmed that,

    Die Aussage von Papst Benedikt XVI. über den Gebrauch von Kondomen ist nach ARD-Informationen nicht nur auf Sonderfälle wie Prostituierte beschränkt. Dies sagte der Autor des Buches "Licht der Welt", Peter Seewald, dem ARD-Hörfunkstudio Rom. Der Papst habe seine Aussage im Rahmen eines sechsstündiges Interview noch einmal erweitert, so Seewald. Es sei "klar und unmissverständlich", dass es Benedikt auch darum gehe, deutlich zu machen, dass es in bestimmten Fällen "besser sei, ein kleineres Übel zu wählen".

    The statement by Pope Benedict XVI about the use of condoms is, according to information available to ARD, not confined to special cases such as with prostitutes [NB: here, the 'genderless' generic is used, as it can be der/die Prostiuierte (!)]. The author of the book 'Licht der Welt', Peter Seewald, confirmed this to the ARD bureau in Rome. The Pope is said to have extended his statement in the course of the six-hour interview, according to Seewald. It was "clear and unambigious", that it is the Pope's main concern to emphasize that, in certain circumstances, it is better to chose the 'lesser evil'.

    The vatican, apparently, made some further comments, which, I believe, will be all over the press anyway.

    The interesting bit here is, though, that "now" Seewald supposedly speaks of Prostituierte without any gender specification, i.e. manifested in the drop of the article. Now for me as a German speaker, this changes, eh, everything. There is still a slight semantic value towards a female reference, but I feel it drops the issue entirely of whether ein Prostituierter can or can't be semantically neutral.

  51. suz said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to add: the articless version is possible in the plural (only) and can emphasize a gender-neutral generic reference (where/if necessary).

  52. C. said,

    November 22, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    Another serious issue of translation between the German, Italian and English, is the use of the word "justified" in the Italian, which does not exist in the English, and as far as I can tell, neither in the German. Can anyone with expertise comment?

    German: Ich würde sagen, wenn ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet…

    Italian (Osservatore Romano): Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati, ad esempio quando una prostituta utilizza un profilattico…

    English (Ignatius Press official translation): There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom…

  53. lukas said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 5:43 am

    C., it is there in the German:

    Es mag berechtigte Einzelfälle geben

  54. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    The Vatican clarified the pope's comments today. Here is a reference to an AP story:

    The relevant part of the story is:
    "Questions arose immediately, however, about the pope's intent because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine for prostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.

    The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes. Benedict replied that it really didn't matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said."

  55. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    And with that I think we have the end of the story. Thank you, Mr Fnorter.

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