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.)

Speak Your Mind