Turkish Language I: Balık etli

As this is my second time spending a significant amount of time in Turkey, I am learning more and more to what point it is important to understand local languages in order to understand cultures. Sometimes the rapport that certain expressions have with a culture is easy to understand.

Sometimes, however, I am left scratching my head. What?

Take, for example, my favourite Turkish term: balık etli. This is an adjective that means, literally, ‘with the meat of a fish,’ but it is actually a euphemism for ‘fat.’ That’s right, a euphemism. While a polite person in Canada may call a fat woman ‘bigger,’ ‘full-figured,’ ‘a bit chubby maybe,’ ‘curvy,’ or ‘thick,’ in Turkish, she is basically ‘like a fish.’

Really?

Really?

To add to this, it is not only an expression that men use to refer to women, but one that women use to refer to themselves. For example, if a woman weighs a few more pounds than she’d like, but isn’t ready to own her fatness, she can say ‘I’m not fat. I’m like a fish!’

Whatever makes you feel sexy baby!

To be honest, I cannot really fathom how this could possibly make any woman feel better about her body. The best equivalent in English I can come up with is, “I’ve got a little meat on my bones,” but at least this isn’t linked to one particular animal, especially not one as unattractive as a fish.

The other thing that I think is really funny about this term is how difficult it is to translate into English. Here’s the thing: this term is polite, it is only used to refer to women, it is not particularly sexualized, it’s a euphemism, it doesn’t mean a very fat body type (google yields pictures of women that I would describe as ‘chubby.’)

So, ‘chubby’ doesn’t work super well, since it’s not polite enough, unless you qualify it with ‘a bit.’ Fat, of course, is out. ‘Thick’ is too sexualized. ‘Full-figured’ might be too euphemistic and plus-sized is typically used when talking about clothing. ‘Curvy’ is losing its value as a euphemism for fat as women who are curvy (in all sizes) continue to maintain that being curvy involves having a small waist and big bust and/or hips. ‘Plump’ is a word that isn’t used much these days, and if it is used it rarely describes young women. Not to mention than every translation totally loses the fishy connotations!

Oh well. I don’t know that I’ve learned something very valuable about Turkish culture, but at least when I speak Turkish I don’t have to try to fit this fish-shaped peg into any other kind of hole.

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