Brückenschläge und Schlagworte

What’s in a Word?

„What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.“

Being a blogger and, if I may be so bold as to call myself by this classier term, maybe even a writer on the whole, I obviously value the written and the spoken word. Putting in words what I have seen while travelling makes me happy, because it makes my experiences seem real, even after they are over. Finding expressions for emotions that I have felt has therapeutic effects on me. Engaging in eloquent discussions with interesting people is when I learn about the world, about myself and about the people around me.

In short, I love using words, and I love it when people know how to use words. By that I don’t mean just having the capability of speech, but I mean people who have an awareness of a language’s possibilities and opportunities. I love it when people are in search of the perfect word while explaining something to me, and it makes me happy when they are aware of having used one specific word because any other word they could have used wouldn’t have been quite as appropriate for just what they meant to say.

Stone heart, Crete, GreeceAbout half a year ago, my job inspired me to a little game: I compared articles about love in different languages on wikipedia, and they set such different focus in the definition of the concept at times that it didn’t even feel like they were talking about the same thing. For example, the English one about LOVE says:

The English word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from pleasure („I loved that meal“) to interpersonal attraction („I love my partner“).

This one mentions love as an expression of affirmation or approval even before it mentions romantic love between two people. Meanwhile the German article on LIEBE reads:

Love in the narrower sense is the term for the strongest affection that one person is capable of feeling for another. It doesn’t need to be reciprocated.

I think it’s beyond interesting that the German entry would feel the need to mention so fast and so explicitly that love can actually be a one-way-street. Whereas the English article is almost functional, or realistic in the least, we may still be stuck in romanticism here in Germany. Who’d have thought.

Wer are all a little weird

Who could have said it better than Dr Suess, really… Courtesy of


The Polish entry about MIŁOŚĆ starts like this:

Love – a feeling directed toward a person that is connected with a desire for their well-being and happiness.

I love that definition because it is so completely altruistic and emotional, and it focuses on the object of love, the loved one, while the German entry focusses on the subject that loves. The Polish is all about the YOU when the German is all about the I. Compared to those very personal approaches, the Spanish piece on AMOR is unbelievably technical and almost scientific:

Love is a universal concept relating to the affinity between beings, defined in diverse ways in respect to different ideologies and points of view (artistic, scientific, philosophical, religious).

In a way, this is the much more professional definition – but who wants professionality when it comes to love, really? And that from the Spanish, a people with a reputation of romance to uphold.

So are Love, Liebe, Miłość and Amor four different things? Are all the definitions valid for every one of these words? For any given word, how do we choose which word and which definition to operate with in which context? While I don’t have any definite results on any of these questions, I try to explore possible answers when I write on my blog, and I think this is one of the most rewarding endeavours in my day to day life.

Writing teaches me to be sensitive to implications, to shades of meaning in words. It forces me to look at the world and at myself so much more intensely. What is the color of that water called? What is the word for that sound that I hear when I tread on this ground? What is going through my head as I make my way from A to B in a foreign place, and how did those thoughts get there, what were they inspired by? What was it that I was feeling when I was in that one specific place? Was it – awe? admiration? or intimidation? Was I overwhelmed or stunned? overstrained maybe even? or on the contrary – complete? at peace? plainly happy? I have come to understand that I need to let myself experience the feelings wholly and find the right moment to attach words to them in order to make the most of my experiences. It is just how I work.

In linguistics, the idea of performativity suggests that words create reality. The most common example for this notion are weddings. By saying “I do”, one creates a reality that goes beyond words – one creates a marriage. The “I do” is thus simultaneously an utterance and a manifest act, a so called speech act. Nothing illustrates the power of words better, I think. They actually are action. With that in mind, I’ll close with a meme that circulated among my friends on facebook a few days ago and that may reflect the general sentiment of the thoughts in this post:

It's always words that undress you.

Courtesy of

10 Kommentare

  1. It amazes me how many people write these days that have no understanding of language. It can be a majestic thing when used properly.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 28, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      Absolutely, Lauren. It holds all this power that is just waiting to be released. A lot of people aren’t even aware of that. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  2. What have impressed me most in my philosophical studies? Semantics. And you write about it here… about all these hidden reflections of meanings and beauty that could be discovered in our languages and words we use as an everyday routine…
    Words are the best way to get know a person, imo. When you watch carefully what one’s saying, you can gather very interesting information about their psychology and attitude to the whole world. Thank you for sharing this post!

    • bridgekeeper

      März 28, 2013 at 5:11 pm

      Thank you, Gosia!! I agree, the way that someone chooses their words can be a mirror of their soul. It can also be very manipulative though and this holds dangers, too. I am so glad you enjoyed my post! xx

  3. Wow this is SO interesting! I definitely know liebe isn’t thrown around like love – and it’s so interesting to hear how it’s worded and used in different languages.

    • bridgekeeper

      März 28, 2013 at 5:19 pm

      Oh yes, there are so many differences in the usage of love and Liebe… also the fact that for „I love you“ we have the distinction in „Ich liebe dich“ and „Ich hab dich lieb“. How are you coping with that as a non-native speaker? 🙂

  4. Mariella

    Well said.

    You have a way with words that draw people in. I continue to read your posts because you keep me interested.

    I would like to invite you to guest write a post on my travel and interest section of my blog.
    You get full credit for article plus a all backlinks which is good.

    My purpose of expanding that section is once people figure out the problem of time and money, that they spend their lives drawings lines through the things on their bucket list of things they always wanted to do.

    Need to point out that I don’t recommend that you start living only when you have money. You can have a pretty full life if you just budget and plan.


    • bridgekeeper

      April 3, 2013 at 1:54 pm

      Thank you, Steve. Get back to me on the guest post thing via email and give me some ideas as to what you’d want me to write about, and I’ll consider it.

  5. A stimulating article Mariella. I’m reminded of Sarte who quoted the saying that „words are loaded pistols“ and that, if we chose to fire, we must do it with honour and deliberation and not wildly or irresponsibly like a child. That is aside from all the interesting semantic issues you have raised. I learnt two dead languages at university (biblical Hebrew and koine Greek) and became very interesting in both the meanings of words and their semantic fields. This lead to an interest in Wittgenstein and his theories of „language games“. Nothing is spoken in a vacuum and there can be no private language since lauguage is communication and that requires at least two people.

    As a perhaps strange example (but an illustrative one) let me offer this: In the Gospel of John the writer talks about „eternal“ life all the time. But what does „eternal“ mean for the writer of this book? You might think it means „forever“ or „never-ending“. But a study of the word used (aionos) reveals that the writer means something of quality not something of quantity. He is not talking about a life that never ends but a certain kind of life.

    • bridgekeeper

      April 10, 2013 at 9:28 am

      I have always loved the way that the dead languages make us question the semantics of any expression. Ancient Greek was one of my absolute favorite subject in school, it is forcing you to get into detail so much and it has most certainly shaped the way I look at and deal with language. Great example you gave there, thank you!!

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