I'm being lazy today, and I am just translating an article I wrote quite some time ago on my other (dead) blog, which explores the way words are interpreted with a cultural filter.

The full title for this post was The Bowl Theory, or The Dictionary Has its Reasons Which Reason Does Not Know [1]

Let us take the French word "bol". If you flip through (even virtually) a bunch of dictionaries, you will find the following definitions:

In French :

BOL, subst. masc.
A. 1. Pièce de vaisselle de forme généralement hémisphérique servant à prendre certaines boissons
A piece of china generaly of a hemispheric shape, used to take in some beverages.

In English :

bowl –noun
1.a rather deep, round dish or basin, used chiefly for holding liquids, food, etc.

In German, it's already a bit more complicated. Leo translates bol by Schale which my dictionary [2] describes in the following terms:

Schale -n
1 - eine relativ flache Schüssel
''a relatively flat "Schüssel"[3]
2 - Tasse
A cup

Which brings us back to the definition of Schüssel, still in that Langenscheidts dictionary

Schüssel -n
1 - ein tiefes, rundes Gefäß, das oben offen ist und in dem man Speisen auf dem Tisch stellt.
A deep and round recipient, often open at the top, which is used to serve food on the table (see image provided).

from Langenscheidts Großwörterbuch - Deutsch als Fremdschprache

So. If you stop at the base definition of the word bol, you end up on roughly the same thing. A round and hollow utensil. So far, so good. However, it becomes complicated when you start using the word in every day life.

Imagine the simple sentence :

Tous les matins, je prends un bol de chocolat. (Every morning, I take a bowl of chocolate).

For a French person, no problem, it's a rather logical use of the word bol. It is even, one could say, the primary use of the word bol. In France, you drink a bow of coffee, or a bowl of tea, preferably with a croissant in the morning. Occasionaly you have a bowl of soup, that works too.

Except that when you tell an English speaker I'm drinking a bowl of chocolate., they're bound to look at you funny. Because bowl in English speaking countries is more often used for soup than it os for coffee. For coffee at breakfast, you have cups or mugs, not bowls.

Let me not even speak about the Germans, which only know the Tasse (cup) for chocolate and have only heard about Schale or Schüssel in relation with fruits, icecream or even salad. Not to mention that they probably have never seen a bol as I know it.

All of this to illustrate how much culture influences language and the difficulty that you may face trying to translate a word without explaining the context. Even words that we might use on an every day basis carry way much more history and cultural influences than you'd think. I can't imagine what the British would do if I asked them for a bowl of tea, or the Germans if I asked for a bowl of coffee...

I'd be interested though, what the meaning of bol is in other languages. Are there more meanings of the word out there?


[1] This is actually a pun on a French phrase: "Le coeur a sa raison que la raison ne connaît pas" which I might explain one day or another.

[2] Langenscheidts Großwörterbuch - Deutsch als Fremdschprache (German as a foreign language)

[3] Dictionaries make a point of referring to an equivalent object to explain a word. If you don't know the definition of said object, you're dead. When of course said object does not refer in turn to the word you were looking for in the first place...