‘Man’ and ‘female’

I wanted to draw attention to a pair of discourses



Ayya and I were reading this in sutta smunday and thought it odd the difference between ‘man’ and ‘female’
‘Female’ is more a term one would use to refer to an animal.

Was this pairing deliberate, or an oversight?


The Pali word matugama, which is rendered here as “femele”, has already been discussed quite a number of times on the forum. See for example AN 5.55, quite an odd sutta, or, the most recent one, How whole meaning of Kamboja sutta is corrupted; and a few more, if you search for “matugama”.

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As Ven. Sabbamitta has said, this has been discussed before on the forum.

I just wanted to say that I agree with you that it’s very odd to me to see female used in place of women. Especially because now it is common in the online misogyny community to use “female” as a way of dehumanizing women.

But translating is hard.


It’s not immediately clear what info in the links provided answers my inquiry.

In practice the basic attitude is overcoming sexual identity (Anguttara Nikaya 7.48).

I dunno about pali @sujato but i know a bit 'bout yer basic English and the pairing terms are either

“Man and woman”


“Male and female”

Regardless of the nuances of the pali.

Missmatching the english does NOT convey whatever subtleties are involved in the second pali term, and while i am no translator that seems to imply that the issue is better served with the idiomatic english and a footnote?

Haven’t read the other threads mentioned.

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It’s deliberate. Whether it is a good translation or not I am not so sure.


My vote is that the very confusion it is causing is evidence that the mismatch in english is not conveying the mismatch in pali and that therfore the matched english with a footnote is the parsimonious decision?

Not at all. Rather, the fact that I have actually represented this difference in translation has caused people to notice it and investigate further. The job of a translator is not to stop people being confused, but to accurately represent the text. If the text is confusing, so be it.

Translators should translate, not hide behind footnotes.


Fair enough of course :slight_smile:

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I’m still really unsure what the translation should be. But people’s readings are exactly what I was intending.

  • it is an awkward and unnatural word: yes, mātugāma is an unusual construction and not found outside Buddhism.
  • it has a whiff of being derogatory, without being explicit: yes, that is the usual context it appears in, where a mātugāma is treated as an obstacle for monks.

The conundrum I have at the moment is whether it should be read in line with its context, or against its context.

Think about, say, a bunch of rowdy guests in a hotel lobby. The concierge comes up, thinking “Bloody punks, how do I get rid of them?”, but what he says is, “Would the gentlemen like to take their party somewhere private?” So he chooses a word “gentlemen” deliberately to counter the context.

I’m wondering whether mātugāma is a specially formal word like “gentlemen”, used to soften what might otherwise be seen as derogatory. This would fit the fact that it’s based on the respected idea of the “mother”. Thus we might translate as “lady”.

Anyway, that’s what I’m ruminating on currently!


Thank you so much for posting our question @Sovatthika.

Bhante @sujato, what caught my attention was Ven Bodhi’s translation of the pairing as woman/man.

In your example the word “gentlemen” can be made scathing in the right context only due to it having a positive meaning in general usage. Is it possible that mātugāma did have a positive meaning in general usage that simply didn’t often appear in the scripture? Any insight from other rescensions?

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I think whiffs are hard to convey. And generally it’s better to err on the side of a translation that does not have a whiff of misogyny if the situation is not explicit.

It doesn’t appear to me that the text is confusing, it’s just using a word whose specific meaning is not 100% clear. I mean, are you saying that the Buddha is here referring to something other than women? Translations flatten meanign all the time. Personally I’d be more concerned with the context of 2023 English where referring to women as “females” is unambiguously intended to dehumanize.

I’m not sure I agree with your “gentleman” theory, but if I’m understanding it correctly, then isn’t “female” conveying the opposite?

But again, translating is hard, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it.


It seems to me that the context of SN 37.1 and 37.2 is the Buddha addressing exclusively bhikkhus. Could that account for the words used?

How about ‘shrew’?
It has that stock character, clicheness which I understand mātugāma to represents.

Vixen has a similar definition in Merriam Webster with the added connotations of sexuality which would contrast with bhikkhu


Part of the challenge, it seems, is that the Pali word alone doesn’t seem to have a negative connotation.

As PED gives, “ gāma** “genex feminarum,” womanfolk, women (collectively…)

So its somewhat negative connotation arises from contextual use.

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vixen lit. ‘foxy lady’ which can be a compliment or derogatory depending on use. So probably better than shrew.

Perhaps a bit like, ‘the fairer sex’…


I woke up this morning with an idea about mātugāma based on iti190 Nadisutta

‘Gaharakkhaso’ti kho, bhikkhave, mātugāmassetaṁ adhivacanaṁ.

Where Bhante @Sujato has translated females to be like saltwater crocodiles and monsters and Ajahn Thanisaro has females as sharks and monsters.

We know that mātugāma is in contrast to bhikkhu. So I am thinking of the mātugāma as the dangerous ‘third’ person in the relationship (vinaya+bhikkhu+mātugāma).

If the mātugāma is lurking under water and circling like a shark or a crocodile (with only their snout/fin visible), then they are a specific kind of woman who is lurking and circling a monk. The woman who hangs around the monastery looking to find a monk husband.

If this was translated to a lay context they would be that third person who was circling a relationship trying to steal one of the partners.

This ties in quiet nicely with Bhikkhu Pācitiya 7, where the monk isn’t meant to speak more than 6 lines of dhamma to a mātugāma. The mātugāma being a more ‘dangerous’ kind of woman than your average woman. Ajahn @brahmali: taṃ kiṃ maññatha?

My line of reasoning seems to sink a bit though when we look at the corresponding bhikkhuni rule where the other-gendered person is a ‘purisa’. Until we consider that the man would be the active partner and the woman the passive in a traditional culture.

Therefore I’m proposing that a mātugāma is a woman playing the ‘active’ role.

For me at least this solves the misogyny (somewhat) in the nadisutta.

(Bhante Sujato, this all come from our conversation yesterday about the pot-nosed crocodile!)


Interesting idea! Although I think by far not all mātugāmas in the canon are circling around monks.