Saturday, 27 November 2010


Watching an old James Bond film last night, conversation in our bilingual household naturally turned to hairy chests. You mean "garden love", said Mama J, "bustani ya mapenzi" (lit. 'garden of love'). I'd never heard this expression before, let alone any special term or euphemism for chest hair in Swahili, so made a beeline for the nearest search engine. I missed the ending of Thunderball, but did find a handful of examples on the Swahili blogs, which have become a fascinating source for exploring contemporary Tanzanian usage. The form in general use, it seems, is English 'love garden', Swahili-ised as lavu gadeni. Mama J confirmed that in her experience it's the English expression (back-to-front or otherwise) that's widely used, rather than its literal Swahili translation, bustani ya mapenzi. "Why 'love garden'?", I asked, and she mimed the act of a love-struck woman caressing the luxuriant growth on her lover's chest. Unfortunately my own weedy patch is no match for Sean Connery's chest wig (aka rug), and I was rejected as a subject for further live demonstration.

Setting aside my disappointment, I'm still intrigued by the origin of this euphemism, whose closest equivalent in modern British parlance is 'love rug', though we also employ horticultural metaphors when describing chest hair, as indeed I've just done myself. I guess it says something that our own mocking idioms are based on the image of manufactured products (rugs and wigs) rather than natural and organic processeses (wild and cultivated growth). It isn't difficult to spot the difference and imagine how a cultural theorist might explain it. (Suggested reading: La pensée sauvage (trans. The Savage Mind) and subsequent works by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, and any number of articles produced by The Postmodern Generator.)

Searching the Internet Living Swahili Dictionary for bustani ya mapenzi (no luck) and related terms, I stumbled across the likely etymology of another fuzzy euphemism that's always puzzled me. I also first heard this from Mama J, who uses malaika, lit. 'angel(s)' (originally a loanword from Arabic), to describe fine body hair or down, like the wispy hairs on a woman's arm. (For the sake of linguistic precision I should have said earlier that Mama J speaks the Unguja dialect of Swahili, having grown up and spent half of her adult life in Zanzibar town.) From angels to body hair seems like a big conceptual leap, but the online dictionary supplies the missing link by indicating that babies and small children are referred to as angels (malaika) as well as the soft downy hair on their bodies. So it's a simple extension of meaning that had been eluding me all these years since Mama J became the mama of our own little angel (not a pet name that I'd normally use in English, but I use it to bring home the linguistic parallel), malaika and all.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962. La pensée sauvage. Paris: Librarie Plon. (trans. 1966. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.)

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