Medicine, it’s a simple word, right? Well, not quite.

I first realized that it might have a broader meaning when a single colleague of mine told of an experience she had while traveling by public transportation in Mali. At a bus station, she was approached by a woman selling things who told her “I have medicine for your children”. My colleague replied that she did not have children. “Oh”, the woman said, “I have medicine for that too.” My colleague replied that she was not married. “No problem”, came the response, “I have medicine for that too!”

Medicine for one’s children fits our definition of medicine just fine. But medicine to find a husband? You probably won’t find that at your local pharmacy. If you found a place that would sell you such a thing, they would not call it “medicine”, but rather a “charm”, “amulette” or a dating service – anything but “medicine”.

Shop - New Life Herbal Clinic_00When we moved to Kenya, the Swahili word meaning medicine – dawa – also had a very wide range of meanings. It could mean over-the-counter or prescription medicines, or it could mean various amulets and charms sold by practitioners of traditional healing. It could also mean the herbal remedies sold by practitioners like the one in the picture. The Swahili word is also applied to the mixed drinks sold at a bar.

In Ghana, the word “medicine” in Ghanaian English has a similarly wide range of meaning, because the words in Ghanaian language closest to the meaning of “medicine” have a wide range of meanings. Consider the following cases:

I smelled something like a dead animal in an office I visited. So I asked about it. “Rats were coming in, so we put out medicine”, I was told. The man went on to explain that they were looking for the dead rat killed by the rat poison (“medicine”) they had put out. Another time, Dayle was noticing that we had ants in the kitchen. A Ghanaian who was there asked “Where is the medicine?”, meaning the ant poison.

I confirmed with some Ghanaian friends that the word for “medicine” in their languages covers what one buys in a pharmacy, various poisons for household or farm use, as well as traditional talismans, amulets and charms, and that some Ghanaians use the English word “medicine” with the same range of meanings.

Linguists call this the “semantic range” of a word. The semantic range of the English word “corner” is covered by at least three French words: “angle”, “coin”, and “corner” (the last borrowed from English for soccer). We don’t notice the semantic range of a word when we speak our own language. It just seems natural to us. But when we start dealing with other languages, especially those from cultures quite different from our own, semantic range gets more noticeable, at least if you know what to look for and want to communicate clearly.

Here’s little illustration of how the word in other language which mean “medicine” also has meanings not covered by the word “medicine” in English.

Range of meanings

Semantic range is one of the things a Bible translator must study, especially for key theological words such as “repent”. For such words, it is important to understand both the semantic range of the original word and the semantic range of words or phrases in the target language that might be used to translate it.

Lest you think that African languages are strange, look up the noun “run” in an English dictionary and consider its quite extraordinary semantic range.

An app for that

Men loading a pickup serving as a "bush taxi" plying a route between two cities. Burkina Faso, circa 1985

A colleague of mine was traveling in rural Africa by locally available public transportation, mostly small buses and pickup trucks with benches in the back. She had traveled part way on one vehicle and was at a “bus station” waiting for a vehicle going to her destination.

Small entrepreneurs set up booths selling food and other things useful for travelers. Others circulate with a tray of goods like candy or cigarettes. They are the equivalent of the shops in airports and the ones I saw at ferry terminals in British Columbia.

One vendor approached my colleague, a single woman. “I have medicine for your children”, she ventured. She might have meant an herbal cure, but it is more likely that she was selling the kind of charm, amulet or grigri which one sees hung round the necks or strung on the waists of small children in the belief that they ward off illness and evil spirits. Drugs sold at the pharmacy, natural cures prepared by a local herbalist, and “magic” charms are all equally referred to as “medicine”.

Man selling goods to travelers from his bicycle at a "bus station" in N'Djamena, Chad, 2009

My colleague replied, “I don’t have children”.

Undaunted, the vendor pursued the sale, “I have medicine for that too!” My colleague laughed. The vendor made a guess, “Do you have a husband?” When my colleague confirmed her singleness, the vendor proved her tenacity and sales skills with, “I have medicine for that too!”

Young men selling cosmetics from an umbrella-shaded roadside stand, Ouagadougou, circa 1990