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Word of the Day: lichaam (body)

For many years I assumed that LICHAAM, body, originally meant ‘house of flesh’. For this reason I had fallen in love with it. After Margreet suggested LICHAAM, I did some research and discovered to my dismay that I had been wrong. Yes, HAAM does not mean ‘home’. HAAM means ‘covering’. And LIC means ‘shape’ as in ‘likeness’. According to the Bible God shaped Adam’s body after his likeness.


So the body is a HAAM, covering a LIC, shape. Een LICHAAM is ‘het stoffelijk omhulsel van de mens’, ‘man’s earthly frame’. And in this frame the soul is housed. At birth HET LICHAAM comes alive and therefore another Dutch word for ‘body’ is ‘LIJF’ which is related to ‘life’, LEVEN. The old word LIC, shape can still be found in the word LIJK, meaning corpse. LIJK is a frame without ‘life’, ‘een LIJF zonder LEVEN’.

In medieval days when there were rumours of bloodthirsty monsters haunting middle earth (middangeard) most Germanic tribes shared a similar word for ‘body’: ‘lichoma’. The epic Beowulf (so wonderfully translated by Seamus Heaney) talks of ‘se lichoma læne gedreoseð’ which means ‘the transitory body decays’. The English lost this beautiful word ‘lichoma’, but the Dutch still have it and more importantly use it. The word ‘body’ goes back to Old English ‘bodig’ meaning ‘trunk’ or ‘chest’. A word that is uniquely English.

So what are my feelings for LICHAAM, now that I know that it merely means ‘bodily frame’ instead of the poetic ‘house of flesh’? I’ll have to live with it. And work at it! In an hour I’ll be at my fitness centre Sport Accent where I’ll undergo a full hour of torture in a group lesson called ‘bodyshape’. Suppose there were gyms in the early Middle Ages… Suppose Beowulf said to his mates: ‘Before going out to slaughter Grendel, let’s work out in Heorot, and do some ‘homalic’. Say that this were true, then ‘bodyshape’ could now have had the Dutch name: HAAMLIC.