The question is how to translate the Hebrew words `ashiysh and its feminine form `ashiyshah (plurals `ashiyshim and `ashiyshoth). It comes from a root word with the same spelling as ish and ishsha, the Hebrew words for 'man' and 'women' respectively. But it occurs most often in a context of food items. The word is found in all forms only five times in the OT. Here are the places, and the meanings assigned in each place by the earliest translators of the OT, the LXX:
2 Sam 6:19 and 1 Chron 16:3 (parallel passages)-- a fried cake
Song 2:5-- perfume
Isaiah 16:7-- them
Hosea 3:1-- cooked meats
Wow. It is clear that the LXX had no idea of the meaning of this word, except that it could refer to 'men' whenever the form was masculine and the context wasn't one of it being eaten!
Had things cleared up any by 1611, when the KJV was released? Let's see:
2 Sam 6:19 and 1 Chron 16:3 (parallel passages)-- a flagon of wine
Song 2:5-- flagons
Isaiah 16:7-- foundations
Hosea 3:1-- flagons
So we see that although they were closing in on just two possible meanings for the word--still depending on whether it was being eaten or not--the KJV translators did not distinguish any difference in meaning between the masculine and feminine forms of the word. Whenever the context was food, they consistently translated both words as 'flagon' with the implication that, by metonymy, wine was what was being talked about. But when the context wasn't food, they went with an entirely different meaning altogether (apparently from the masculine plural word's similarity to the feminine plural word `ashioth, the Qere for an hapax legomenon used in Jeremiah 50:15, which they also translated 'foundations').
Let's see if the NIV
2 Sam 6:19 and 1 Chron 16:3 (parallel passages)-- a cake of raisins
Song 2:5-- raisins
also, Jeremiah 50:15-- towers
Isaiah 16:7-- men
Hosea 3:1-- sacred raisin cakes
Huh. The NIV has consistently supplied a significantly different word than the KJV for all references to food, and yet another totally different word for the other reference, and a new term for the word used architecturally. In this we find them not much different than the 1901 ASV, which reads 'raisin/+cakes' for all four references, while allowing for the marginal possibility of 'foundations' in Isaiah, and reading 'bulwarks' in Jeremiah. Enough about the word in Jeremiah, though. Of modern versions, only the NKJV retains 'foundations' in both places.
So what is it about this word that it means "raisin cakes" whenever food is in the context, but something entirely different (no one is sure what) when it isn't?
Well, we get some sort of a clue from the NIV
a. Isaiah 16:7 Or “raisin cakes,” a wordplay
How 'raisin cakes' can refer to 'men', wordplay or no, is beyond me. It was obviously beyond the capacity of readers of British English, as the CBT deleted the footnote in the NIV-UK 1984. And of course it was beyond the ability of a third-grade reader to understand, so it wasn't in the NIrV 1996 edition either. But what was that pesky word 'men' doing in these two supposedly gender-neutral editions? It must have really irked a later generation of CBT members, who went through the OT with an electronic scalpel to remove every superfluous occurrence of the word. Voilà, no more wordplay:
"Lament and grieve for the raisin cakes of Kir Hareseth." --TNIV 2005, NIV 2011
Whew. To think that the word always meant "raisin cakes" all along. Who knew?
UPDATE May 27, 2011. I got my hands on a 1978 NIV, and there is a difference. Isaiah 16:7 just reads "raisin cakes," with no hyphen, modifier, or footnote; Hosea 3:1, on the other hand, reads "sacred raisin-cakes." So my final word stands. UPDATE March 37, 2012. Okay, I finally get the 'wordplay' in Isaiah 16:7. "Men" and "UFI" (unidentified food items) can supposedly be spelled the same way in Hebrew--אֲשִׁישֵׁ. Except that I have yet to find any examples in Scripture of 'men' actually spelled this way . . .