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Pearls, Beads and Metaphors

In many languages, the word for "pearl" is synonymous with the word for "bead." The pearl is thought of as a natural bead.

The only word that comes close to having as many matches as pearl and bead is "coral," used for the general term for "bead" in Russian, Polish, Czech, Dutch and Yiddish.

Next most common would be al-akik, Arabic for "agate" and the root of that word in English, used also for "bead" in Farsi and Dari. Arabic also sometimes uses nazhim (to put in order), especially in the phrase lulu nazhim, which means, "to string pearls."

The word for pearl and bead in:

    Greek - margarite
    Latin - margarite
    French - perle
    German - perle
    Serbo-Croation - perla
    Swedish - pärle
    Tamil - mutu
    Hindi - moti
    Kayan - ino
    Flores - inu
    Cebuano - hinau
    Chinese - zhu

The English word for bead is derived ultimately from the Indo-European *bhidh, related to fides and fiscus or *bheudh, related to bo, bodhi and Buddha. In Old English it was bede, meaning, "to pray."

Another language to make the rosary connection is Spanish. Cuenta (bead) comes from "counting."

The Indo-Iranian mani (precious stone, seed, sperm) is used in India for "gem," but adopted in Indonesian and Malay as manik, most often in the plural manik-manik (beads).

In ancient Egyptian "bead" was sha-sha: sha means "luck." The Chinese zhu, cited on the upper right means not only "bead" and "pearl," but also "pupil of the eye."

No, not my pet,
but the back of a playing card.
Collecting them is a hobby of mine


These are the languages I have been able to work out. I'd appreciate hearing of more examples. Contact me here.

There is a section on that discusses the many ways beads are used as metaphors. Here I offer a couple more examples.

The pearl as a hidden treasure.

You have probably seen this clever ad for Adobe Systems.

The tag line says "A fabulous surprise in every pack."

An illustration for a book review of Kathleen Norris' The Virgin of Bennington, about a church-going Midwestern girl discovering sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in an Eastern college in the mid 1960s.

The broken beads of her rosary merge with the pills spilled from the bottle in her other hand.

Note: The illustrations above are copyrighted. I have used them in the belief that such use (commenting on them, not using them for personal gain) is covered by the "fair use" clause of the copyright law. I do not know who holds the copyright for the Adobe ad or the playing card. The book review illustration was done by Thomas Fuchs and appears in The New York Times Book Review 27 May 2001, p. 10. If there are any objections by the copyright holders to my use of these illustrations, they should contact me.

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