When you talk of courage ngesiNgisi, are you aware that it’s from the root word for ‘heart’? If you read my previous post on inhliziyo, you’ll realise that courage ngesiZulu doesn’t come from the heart. So where does it come from?

Simply put, it comes from your liver.

ngesiZulu, isibindi’s first meaning is ‘courage’ or ‘boldness’. It is only in its second meaning that it denotes the liver of either a human or an animal. Incidentally, the example in Vilakazi and Doke (1958) for isibindi is the following:

isibindi sengwenya > crocodile liver, much in demand by Native (sic) doctors for making umuthi

Moving on from this interesting sociolinguistic nugget, isibindi also denotes ‘the essential internal part of anything (e.g. embryo of plant, germ inside a seed, pith, heart of wood, interior of a country where the important kraals are located). Finally it denotes a species of hard tree-growing fungus (presumably because its shape resembles the lobes of the liver).

But where does this word come from?

It comes from the verb ukubinda, derived from the Ur-Bantu stem -vinda, meaning ‘place crosswise’. It’s related to vimba (see my previous post on Operation Vimbezela for more on this), and has two specific meanings in modern isiZulu:

1. Choke, stick in the throat, obstruct breathing (with a note that ‘this verb is more commonly used in the passive’)

2. Silence, stifle speech.

So far, courage and choking seem unrelated (as do courage and stifled speech) – so we need to dig deeper.

There are 6 cognate nouns for isibindi, and 4 cognate verbs. Let’s have a look at those to see if we can work anything out. Nouns first (of course):

i(li)binda – a species of plant, Canthium Queinzii; person hard to understand; silent person; Cossypha dichroa, the noisy robin [Chorister]

imbinda – wrinkles from thigh to hip

isibinda – species of large, hard-wood forest tree (divided into Garcinia gerrardi & Oxyanthus gerrardi / latifolius / natalensis

umbinda – the root of the isidwa gladiolus (Gladiolus Ludwigii) [totally awesome entry under isidwa – go look for it!]

i(li)bindi – painful brooding, secret or internal sorrow or anger

u(lu)bindi – thick mass, dense crowd (of people, cattle, etc.), large volume of water

Looking over this, there are some interesting things going on – the nouns ending in -a emphasise the silence or choking (except for the noisy robin), while those ending in -i focus on the liver characteristics. It seems as though the word for liver was derived from the meaning of the Ur-Bantu (the mutable thing lying crosswise in the abdomen) and then further meaning was imputed from that derivation. Hmm…

The verbs all back up this theory – bindana, bindeka, bindela and bindwa all emphasise silence, and specifically the silence when one chokes on words which sit crosswise in the throat. Still no mention of courage or bravery, the primary meaning of isibindi.

But maybe courage involves being silent?

Maybe choking on the cry of fear or pain which you want to release is the essence of bravery.