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Word of the Day: lijf (body)

This morning while I was crunching and stretching my muscles at Sport Accent, my fitness centre in Ypenburg, I was suddenly struck with the question: what am I actually doing here? It’s absurd. 


I can understand why outsiders laugh at our vain attempts to attain, what they call, a ‘glorieus lijf’ (glorious body). You may laugh, ha ha, but surely a toned body we’ll never have in this life no more. And still we’re sweating and struggling. Then why? Yes why…

For reasons of health? Compensation for the rusty unhealthy life that we lead? Because it makes us feel good? Yes, it makes me feel good. I admit. So I must be LIEF voor mijn LIJF. Good for my body. Crunch on.

So far this week we have dived into the L*F-words LAF (cowardy), LEF (gutsy) and LIEF (sweet). The next one in line is LIJF, body. It is another word for LICHAAM, which we investigated in an earlier posting. Both LIJF and LICHAAM go back to Anglo-Saxon times. In Old English the word existed as ‘līf’ which meant ‘life’.

So ‘body’ stems from ‘life’. LIJF originally must have meant ‘living body’ as opposed to the dead body which is named LIJK (corpse). LIJK found its way into LICHAAM (body) which is a compound of LIJK and HAAM (frame, casing) and like Frankenstein’s monster it was given life. Now LIJF and LICHAAM are synonyms. In Dutch LIJF lost its sense of ‘life’ except in compounds such as ‘lijfrente’ (annuity) and ‘lijfsbehoud’ (preservation of life).

The word LIJF reminds us that there was life before it was applied to the living body. In Old English ‘bodig’ was a ‘trunk’ or ‘chest’ of a man or animal. Nowadays ‘bodig’ only exists in English. In German it was replaced by ‘Leib’ and ‘Körper’ (from Latin). From the late thirteenth century ‘body’ and ‘LIJF’ were used to distinguish the mortal house of flesh from the eternally living soul.

We now know so much more than our ancestors. We know about the functions of the organs, the ingenious blood circulation, the heart as a strong muscle and the circuits of the brain. And yet we still feel uncomfortable in our bodies and in our brains. All we humans are is this house of flesh. ‘Wij zijn ons LIJF’ (we are our body) and that includes our brain.

Our brains forget how differently our ancestors viewed the body. In the Old English epic Beowulf the word ‘banhus’ (the bone-house) is a metaphor for the human body. The soul was the ‘banhuses weard’ (the guardian of the bone-house). Mortal life on earth was not to be confused with the true life, which was the afterlife, the everlasting life in heaven.

The LIJF goes on as long as it breathes and it becomes a LIJK when life has fled. No wonder that LIJK and LIJF are so similar in sound and form. The /f/ suggests continuation and the /k/ an abrupt end.

In the nineteenth century, in the romantic period, our LIJF evolved from a mortal coil to an instrument of intense pleasure. It was the time of sports, dance and the invention of the Kurhaus in Scheveningen, pornography, eroticism. Walt Whitman sang the body electric. The wild French poet Baudelaire wrote ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ (Flowers of Evil) which celebrated the sensual body. The lush picture attached to this posting is from this volume of poetry.

Okay, so you liked yesterday’s poem by Herman Gorter. The LIEFSTE poem ever written. And you want to taste more Gorter. Well here is another short poem that portrays a woman’s body as a flower. Also from the collection ‘Verzen’ (1890), written in that wonderful period when poets gave new life to the word LIJF.

Haar ogen tintelkelken,
haar hand stil rood,
haar lijf een wèlle kelke
uit haren schoot.

Her eyes tinglechalices
her hand calm red
her body a rising chalice
out of her lap.

(translation © Ruud Hisgen, 2013)