I just ran across the term bocio, referring to a kind of wooden sculpture created by the Fon. Of course I wanted to know something about the word. Jeffrey H. Wallenfeldt (ed.), Africa to America: From the Middle Passage Through the 1930s, p. 71, says “empowered sculptural objects known as bo (plural bocio).” On the other hand, Laura S. Grillo, in Elias Kifon Bongmba (ed.), The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to African Religions, p. 118 (citing Suzanne Preston Blier), says “literally meaning ’empowered (bo) cadaver (cio).'” This is the kind of problem you tend not to run into with European languages.


  1. Dan Milton says

    Fon is a language of the Gbe family. The Wikipedia article on Gbe says they are isolating languages with no inflection for number, so I’d go with the “empowered cadaver”.

  2. Don’t English -like and -ly derive from a word that used to mean ‘corpse, body’, and therefore ‘shape, form, likeness’? Has -cio perhaps been similarly grammaticalized?

  3. Has this got any relationship with voodoo?

  4. Maybe. If you google [bocio voodoo] you get references to Hans Peter Oswald saying the use of voodoo dolls “recalls the aforementioned use of bocio and nkisi figures in Africa,” and GJK Campbell-Dunn saying “In studying the African origins of the voodoo cult Blier presents a carefully researched analysis and interpretation of the small West Africa figures known as bocio.” Depends how you lean on the coincidence-versus-influence scale, I guess.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Joel, if cio had been grammaticalized like German -lich, English -ly, if would occur in many, many more words than just bocio (the Germanic suffixes come from the meaning ‘body’ rather than specifically ‘corpse’ – “body” can have that meaning too, in a suitable context).
    LH, I think it would be amazing that populations coming from West Africa only four or five centuries ago (and often much more recently) had not preserved religious or semi-religious (depending on your definition) customs from their original homeland. Sure, the customs are not strictly identical, but that is not surprising given the new conditions (material, social, psychological, etc) encountered by the forcibly transplanted populations. Pure coincidence is much too improbable.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    I’m not sure why the etymology here is any more puzzling than that of the idiomatic meaning of “exquisite cadaver,” calqued from the French “cadavre exquis.” Isn’t French a European language, even in the hands of Surrealists?

  7. I’m not sure why the etymology here is any more puzzling than that of the idiomatic meaning of “exquisite cadaver,” calqued from the French “cadavre exquis.”
    I’m not sure you’ve understood the problem. Sure, if bo does in fact mean ’empowered’ and cio ‘cadaver,’ then of course it’s not puzzling at all. The problem is that I can’t turn to my right, pull down my handy-dandy (and purely hypothetical) Oxford Fon-English, English-Fon Dictionary, and look it up. (I do in fact have an English Akan Ewe Ga Dictionary, and Ewe is very close to Fon, but it’s a terrible dictionary and the words it provides for these concepts aren’t anything like bo and cio.) There is exactly one source claiming that that is the derivation of the word; there is one other source claiming something entirely different. Now do you see the problem?

  8. marie-lucie says

    French le cadavre and English cadaver, from a Latin word, “mean” the same thing objectively but have different connotations. The French word is used in the same way as “corpse”, while I think English cadaver is used in a medical context. So cadavre exquis should be exquisite corpse in English.
    Evolution from ‘body’ to ‘dead body’: English corpse is from French le corps ‘body’ (pronounced like cor in the modern language, but like the English word in an older form of French).

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, you have one source offering an etymology and another source not offering an etymology (and offering a current meaning not obviously at odds with the etymology from the other source), so there’s not necessarily an irreconcilable conflict, although the sing./pl. distinction the no-etymology source suggests admittedly creates some possible tension.
    Apparently “exquisite corpse” is also current in English, but since the whole point of the French idiom is that the original juxtaposition of “cadavre” and “exquis” was so arbitrary/unexpected/meaningless as to be thought way cool if you were an easily-amused Surrealist, it’s not like it matters which way you render “cadavre” in English since the degree to which the juxtaposition is arbitrary/surreal/etc. in English is not affected in one direction or the other by the translator’s choice between “corpse” and “cadaver.”

  10. dearieme says

    Ahoy, Hat: funniest thing seen today –
    “he’s a thinking man’s Chomsky”

  11. El bocio is also Spanish for goitre, a swelling of the thyroid gland at the base of one’s neck. I learned the Spanish word two days ago (in a patient’s transfer letter) and was very surprised to see the same orthographic word in a languagehat entry yesterday!

  12. “he’s a thinking man’s Chomsky”

  13. marie-lucie says

    JWB: You are right in principle, but exquisite cadaver is even more repellent.

  14. Claire Lefebvre’s Grammar of Fongbe says “the Fon plural marker is lɛ́“; if you search for “corpse” you can find words like cyɔ́-‘ɖíɖí = “corpse-burying, burial” and cyɔ́-dò = “corpse-hole, grave”. I can’t find anything that seems to fit “bo”, I think we can be pretty confident that “cio = plural” is incorrect.
    Of course, even if “cio” is a plausible representation of a Fongbe morpheme meaning “corpse”, that doesn’t mean that the “empowered cadaver” etymology is necessarily correct, either… For example, Google Books also has the third issue of “Black Orpheus: A Journal of African and Afro-American Literature” which offers two possible etymologies:

    The literal meaning of the word has been variously given as: ‘the medicine that rests on the spirit’ (bo — gris-gris, magical medicine; chi — to rest on; ye — spirit) or: ‘the medicine of a dead body’ (bo — gris-gris, magical medicine; chio — a dead body.)’

    So there are still other contenders (although “bo + chi + ye” looks suspiciously like a folk etymology made up by a non-native speaker flipping through a dictionary, doesn’t it?). Maybe someone should write to Dr Lefebvre at UQAM and ask what she thinks?

  15. “empowered cadaver” is Blier‘s translation. A bocio is a kind of bo (charm, talisman) incorporating a figure, hence the corpse part.

  16. I think it’s just cool how the English adverbial suffix comes from a word for ‘body’, while the Romance one comes from a word for ‘mind’.

  17. marie-lucie says

    JC, Cool observation! English: rugby players (or the ancient equivalent), Romance: Latin orators.
    Actually, the Germanic suffix and its descendants are as much adjectival as adverbial (eg friendly, lovely), although English -ly is currently productive only for adverbs.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Matt: “bo + chi + ye” looks suspiciously like a folk etymology made up by a non-native speaker flipping through a dictionary
    I agree that it looks like a folk etymology, but not necessarily by a non-native speaker. Such etymologies arise from the “untutored folk”, as they used to be called, meaning native speakers, trying to make sense of odd words in which they detect a resemblance, often just partial, with a word or words they know. An example is “stomatology” interpreted as having to do with the stomach. In English this often arises from the pronunciation, but it can also happen from ambiguous spelling: I once had a student who thought that “together” was a compound of ‘to-get-her’.
    Linguists are not immune to this sort of error, of course, especially at the beginning of their study. However, they are less likely to rely on just partial resemblances or to extrapolate to other, less resemblant words, which they might not know anyway. Boc(h)io might be interpreted as *bo-chi-yo, not bo-chi-ye with its different final vowel.
    At any rate, the additional data provided show that the cio part (to use the simplified transcription) must be a single word.

  19. Thanks, Matt! I was hoping someone would do the serious digging I was too lazy to do.

  20. I should have mentioned that Blier calls Ulli Beier’s translations that Matt found, “problematic,” also citing Merlo.
    Although the title African Vodun sounds pretty expansive, the book is essentially about bo and bociɔ in the Gbe-speaking peoples of what was Dahomey.
    They were bo-chio to Burton. The distinction he picked up on was the figures meant to be planted in the ground. Which is often how African art dealers and auction houses break it down, too.

  21. So does the letter c indicate the affricate “ch” sound in Fon?

  22. Marie-Lucie: Apparently I was anticipated by the etymologist and philologist Ernest Weekley (1865-1954). Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt. Pereant, I say! But perhaps Weekley has suffered enough; he was Frieda van Richtoven Lawrence‘s betrayed first husband.

  23. I believe so, with j being the corresponding voiced one. You can hear Professor Blier say it a couple times here. She’s speaking French with an American accent, but I don’t think that matters much.

  24. Thanks! The mention of bocio is at the 4:10 mark, if anyone wants to skip to it and avoid her horrendous accent. (I don’t know why heavy American accents in French make me cringe as much as they do—well, probably the deeply internalized reactions of my stern French teacher, Mme Ruegg, who would have stopped her after the first diphthongized vowel and made her repeat it until it was pure and français.)

  25. marie-lucie says

    LH: So does the letter c indicate the affricate “ch” sound in Fon?
    Plain c is often used to indicate an affricate, something which is common in Central Europe (usually [ts], sometimes [tsh = written ch or tch in English]). Also, in many languages or sets of dialects, using the sounds [ts] or [tch] is a matter of local or individual preference, they don’t make a difference to the meaning, so the letter c can cover both without causing ambiguity, and is more economical than the digraph ch.. Mme Lefebvre uses a more accurate phonetic transcription than the writer of “bocio”. Her grammar must include a key to all the phonetic signs, explaining among other things how exactly to pronounce c (including the local, etc variants if needed).

  26. a more accurate phonetic transcription
    It’s the official (Benin government) orthography, except that tones are given uniformly, rather than when ambiguity is possible. (And always in the same isolated form, ignoring tone sandhi.)

  27. Investigating the issue a decade later, I figure I might as well provide a more extensive quote from Blier’s African Vodun (University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 101:

    Bociɔ‘s first radical, bo (gbo), also affords us unique insight into features of transferential functioning. Bo is translated in the Fon-French dictionary compiled by Segurola (1963:94) as “gris-gris,” “amulet,” “talisman.” Such a translation, however, fails to convey any real sense of the deeper cultural values accorded the word. “Activating object” or “empowerment means” is a more incisive translation and is in accord with objects identified as bo and bociɔ.

    I still wish I could find an actual linguistic analysis.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    Maybe the below vocab and grammar for Fon is motivating for the etymology:

    Bŏ : Amulette

    Bŏ : Gri-gri africain

    Bŏ : Talisman

    Bòcíɔ : Statuette en bois

    Bŏɖiɖí = gri-gri efficace

    Cíɔ̀ : Cadavre humain

    Cíɔ̀ : Défunt

    Cíɔ̀ : Mort

    Cíɔɖiɖi : Enterrement définitif

    Ɖiɖì : Efficace (fait d’être)

    V. Association nom nom (nom).

    VI. Association nom qualificatif (adjectif ou préposition-adverbe).

    see link for examples

  29. Great stuff, thanks!

  30. David Eddyshaw says

    Bŏ “gris-gris” looks as if it might be cognate with proto-Oti-Volta *bʊ̂k-, Kassem vʋ̀, proto-Bantu *bʊ́k- “find out by divination”, Kusaal bʋgʋr “shrine, charm”, Chakali vʊ́g “shrine” etc. (Divination by casting lots is the main “religious” activity among Western Oti-Volta speakers: they don’t go in for any of that spirit-possession stuff that the Gbe peoples do.)

    Kusaal Abʋgʋr is actually a very common personal name, “Abugri”, though in this case bʋgʋr actually means “a spiritual guardian inherited from one’s mother’s family.”

  31. Trond Engen says

    It would be fun if this could be the source of the famous Hausa boko. A semantic bridge might be something like “pagan practice” -> “illegitimate religious practice” -> “heresy”.

  32. Trond Engen says

    Oh, right. I meant to link to that thread.

  33. Thank you David Eddyshaw for that short discussion of possible cognates across Niger-Congo! I always enjoy that.

    Looking the word from a completely different angle… It appears that bǒcyɔ was used to render the idea of ‘graven image’ in ma kpa bǒcyɔ ó, in this Fon translation of the Bible, translating לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה לְךָ פֶסֶל lōʾ-ṯaʿăśeh ləḵā p̄esel ‘thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’ (Exodus 20:4). Kpa is ‘sculpt, carve, cut’. Are ma and ó negative particles here? I have not looked into the question of who exactly made this translation.

  34. And here, Colossians 3:5 :

    Νεκρώσατε οὖν τὰ μέλη ὑμῶν τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς πορνείαν ἀκαθαρσίαν πάθος ἐπιθυμίαν κακήν καὶ τὴν πλεονεξίαν ἥτις ἐστὶν εἰδωλολατρεία

    Énɛ́ wú ɔ, mi sú kún dó nú wǔjɔnú agbaza tɔn mitɔn sín jlǒ lɛ́, yě wɛ nyí agalilɛ, nǔblíblíwiwa, jlǒ xóɖóxámɛ tɔn syɛ́nsyɛ́n e jí è ma ɖu ɖe ǎ é, jlǒ nyanya lɛ́, nukúnkɛndídó; nukúnkɛndídó ɔ cí bǒcyɔsinsɛn ɖɔhun

    Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry

    I gather Fon sìnsɛ̀n is ‘worship, religion’, from sɛ̀n ‘serve; worship (a deity)’ (also used in the context of Vodun).

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    Are ma and ó negative particles here?

    Yes. At least, ma is the negative; ó usually appears in negative contexts, but not always, and Lefebvre calls it an “insistence” particle. (Lots of West African languages do have such a clause-final particle, notably including the English-lexifier creoles.)

    Kusaal and Mooré actually do have bipartite negation markers consisting of a preverbal negative particle and a clause-final negative enclitic. (I’ve just been revising my Kusaal grammar in the light of the realisation that the position of the negative enclitic reflects the scope of the negation rather than whether the clauses involved are subordinate or not.) It seems that this is probably not the case for Fon, though.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    For Exodus 20:4, the Kusaal version has

    Mid ka ya maali wina linɛ an wʋʋ niiŋ bɛɛ bʋnkɔnbʋg bɛɛ ziiŋa.
    Negative.let and you make gods which are like bird or animal or fish.Negative

    where win “spiritual individuality” has been pressed into its usual Christian sense of “pagan god” (pretty remote from its original meaning, which is a lot closer to “soul.”)

    The Mooré has the rather more circumstantial and literal

    Ra maan bõn-naandg sẽn wẽnd bũmb sẽn be saasẽ, wall sẽn be tẽngã zugu, wall sẽn be koom pʋsẽ dũniyã tẽngr ye.
    Negative.Imperative make.Imperfective thing-drawn which resemble things which exist or which exist land.the head or which exist water world below Negative

    (Spot the Arabic loanwords)

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    For “idolatry” in Colossians 3:5, the Kusaal has ba’ar maalʋg “idol sacrificing”, where ba’ar is from *bagrɪ, which has been coopted in Christian usage for “idol”, but actually means “shrine”: it is usually something like a mound/altar on which is placed the bʋgʋr, which is the physical focus for a (non-anthropomorphic) win “spirit.” The Kusaasi do not worship objects, and the traditional rendering “fetish” for bʋgʋr and its cognates is just wrong.

    The *bag- root goes back to proto-Oti-Volta *bak-; it’s not clear to me if it is etymologically related to *bʊ̂k- “find out by divination”, but it is also the basis of e.g. Kusaal ba’a, Mooré bága, which is the word for the person who actually performs divination for his clients. (Niggli’s dictionary glosses bága as “devin, divinateur, charlatan, magicien”, but the senses other than “diviner” are just Christian propaganda; and a bága is neither a traditional healer, nor a magician.)

    There are a few other apparent ablaut pairs like this in Oti-Volta, but I don’t understand what’s going on with them. Ablaut of that sort seems to be virtually unknown in Volta-Congo generally.

  38. If the etymology of bǒcyɔ is still felt by Fon speakers, reconciling the presence of a crucifix in the church with the Second Commandment ma kpa bǒcyɔ ó must be even harder for Fonophone Christians than for other Christians…

  39. Fonophone

    I am in ecstasy.

  40. David Eddyshaw says

    must be even harder for Fonophone Christians than for other Christians…

    I don’t see that. Christians who are accustomed to crucifixes (unlike us hardcore Protestant Iconoclasts*) presumably never regard them as “graven images” within the meaning of the act. Is there any evidence that Fon Christians actually call a crucifix a bǒcyɔ?

    I don’t know of any Oti-Volta conventional words for “crucifix”, though obviously it wouldn’t be difficult to express the concept. “Cross” in Kusaal is dapuudir, which is just a transparent compound literally meaning “crossed pieces of wood.”

    * The emperor Leo III (“the Iconoclast”) was apparently called “Saracen-Minded” by his less iconoclasty contemporaries. I think there may indeed have been some mutual influence with the Islamic world: even the Muslim opposition to sacred images has not always been as rigorous as some modern Muslims like to suppose.

  41. Trond Engen says

    Girls just wanna have Fon.

  42. And Peuls just wanna have kine.

  43. The Fon rings in the middle of the Bight…

  44. Better Mende your evil ways!

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    I can’t take any Moore of this.

    (It’s just Nateni Fon any Moore.)

  46. PlasticPaddy says

    Is there any evidence that Fon Christians actually call a crucifix a bǒcyɔ?
    The word for cross (1-2) may be analysable or not….
    Àklúnɔ̀ : Seigneur-dieu
    esprit-yɛ̀ ‑yɛhwè
    croix(1) ‑ aklúzù (= Àklúnɔ̀ + Zùn?)
    la croix (2) du christ ‑ yàtín = yɛ̀ + atín
    atín : bois
    Tín: arbre
    Zùn : Forêt, brousse

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    Obviously I am compelled to point out that the “bois” word has cognates all over Volta-Congo, e.g. Kusaal tiig, Mooré tɩ̀ɩgá, Ewe àtí, Samba Leko , Gbeya te, Swahili mti, all meaning “tree” …

    Even Atlantic seems to have a cognate: Bijogo ŋu-te “tree” (based on what I’ve seen, the Bak group seems to be the best candidate so far within Atlantic for genetic relatedness to Volta-Congo; though the various subgroups within Atlantic are as different from one another as any is from Volta-Congo, so even this would not be enough to demonstrate that “Atlantic-Congo” was a real thing.)

  48. David Marjanović says

    I think there may indeed have been some mutual influence with the Islamic world: even the Muslim opposition to sacred images has not always been as rigorous as some modern Muslims like to suppose.

    That seems to be textbook wisdom; I once saw it illustrated with coins – the early ones depicting the emperor and his sons vs. the caliph and his advisers, the late ones just religious symbols. Unfortunately it’s not in the obvious Wikipedia articles.

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