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The Tagalog Body

Monica FA Wong Santos

In Anthropology and Human Movement: Searching for Origins (2000: chap. 7), Drid Williams discusses the tension between "structural universals" and "semantic diversity." For Williams, the two aspects of structural universals relevant to human movement studies are "those pertaining to space and those pertaining to the bodies that move in space" (ibid.: 165). Universal categories for conceptualizing space are expressed in the following dimensions: up/down, right/left, front/back, and inside/outside. The theoretical concept of "the semasiological body" is used to understand bodily universals. Here, the body is viewed in terms of the "degrees of freedom" afforded by each of the joints of the human body, which are the same for all humans (unless physically compromised in some way). In and of themselves, as theoretical constructs, Williams considers these to be semantically null (that is, without meaning). The semantic content (with enormous variation) emerges as these concepts are applied to or utilized by specific movement systems, as well as in particular conceptions of the body in different social and cultural contexts (for examples, see Williams 1980a and b, Farnell 1995, Kensinger 1995, and Corn 2008).

     Guided by Williams's discussion of "structural universals vs. semantic diversity," in this paper I discuss how Filipino concepts of the body are revealed in uses of the Tagalog language.1 I explore references to the body and body parts in everyday Tagalog words and idiomatic expressions, as well as uses of body-related words in contexts that do not directly reference the human body. In doing so, I examine what these imply about the way the human body (and its parts) might be perceived by Tagalog speakers. In turn, I hope to contribute to a growing body of literature that looks at the body as a culturally specific semantic domain and resource for classifying and thinking about things in the world (cf. Williams 1980a, Bastien 1986, Bonvillain 1989, MacLaury 1989, Hollenbach 1995).

     My analysis is inspired by Kenneth Kensinger's discussion in the chapter titled "The Body Knows: Cashinahua Perspectives on Knowledge" in his book How Real People Ought to Live: The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru (1995). In this chapter, Kensinger argues against Cartesian body-mind dualism by illustrating how, for the Cashinahua, knowledge is not conceived of as being centralized in the human brain or mind but is distributed among different parts of the body. Knowledge is acquired through experience, and it is the part(s) of the body that are involved in specific actions and activities that gain knowledge about such actions and activities. Although Kensinger focuses on how knowledge is gained and given expression in action, his analysis also alerts us to a particular way of conceptualizing the body (and body parts) that is expressed in spoken discourse about knowledge.

     In this study, I analyze 103 terms that refer to the body and to different parts of the body using data from three Tagalog dictionaries (Santos 1983, Enriquez and Santos 1985, and Ramos 1985) and my own knowledge as a native speaker of Tagalog. I include colloquial phrases identified in a previous study (Samonte, Santos, and Tatel 2005) as well as in Michael Tan's book Revisiting Usog, Pasma, Kulam (2008), which is about folk notions of illness and healing in the Philippines.

Tagalog Concepts of the Body

In my initial review of words for particular parts of the body, I found that many had multiple meanings (see Appendix 1). In most cases, not unlike their uses in English and other languages (as noted by Ellen (2006[1977]), these words also refer to analogous parts of both inanimate and animate objects, conceptually similar parts of inanimate objects, or similar-looking parts of animate and inanimate objects.2 For example,

balat (skin)—also cover of a book, shell of eggs, leather, coconut husk, fruit rind

bibig (mouth)—also any opening suggestive of a mouth or an entrance or opening, for example, of a bottle, pot, volcano, cave

katawan (body)—also part of garment that covers the trunk or upper part of the body, trunk, or torso of an animal, part of the automobile that holds the load and passengers

dila (tongue)—also flap under the strap of the shoe, vibrating piece of a reed instrument

likod (back)—also back of a chair

mata (eyes)—also used in mata ng karayom ("eye of the needle," which resembles the shape of the eye)

ulo (head)—also talent, sense, part of nail, end part of furniture (for example, a bed)

labi (lips)—also rim of a bottle

laman (flesh)—also content of a container, meaning or substance of a concept

panga (jaw)—also the jaw of an animal, usually of fish (for example, tuna) that is eaten

puso (heart)—also used in puso ng saging ("heart of the banana," or the banana blossom, which resembles the shape of the human heart)

taba (fat)—also refers to the fatty part of meat, fertilizer

In some cases, in a process linguists call 'semantic extension,' another word is attached to the name of the body part that the object visually resembles. These include the plants, bayag-kabayo (Dioscorea bulbifera) and bayag-kambing (Caesalpinia crista)—literally, 'testicles of the horse' and 'testicles of the goat'—which are both vines that produce fruit, the shapes of which somewhat resemble that of testicles. Other plants, locally known as dilang-baka (Napolea chinellifera), dilang-buwaya (aloe vera), and dilang-usa (Trichodesma zeylanicum)—literally, tongue of the cow,' 'tongue of the crocodile,' and 'tongue of the deer,' respectively—resemble the shape and surface of the tongue.

     Nouns for body parts are also sometimes turned into verbs for particular actions that can be done by, or on, that part of the body, or used to indicate particular spatial orientations.


kamay (hand)—becomes kamayan or 'to shake hands'

dila (tongue)—becomes dilaan or 'to stick out one's tongue' or 'to lick' something

batok (nape)—becomes batukan or 'to hit or strike the nape'

Spatial Orientation

mukha (face)—the front or façade of something

likod (back)—at the back or be at the back of something

tagiliran (sides of the body)—at the side of, to the side of

pusod (navel)—when used in the phrase pusod ng dagat (navel of the sea), meaning the bottom of the sea

paa (foot)—when used in the phrase paa ng bundok (foot of the mountain), meaning the bottom part of the mountain

Terms for particular personality traits or one's character also use nouns for body parts. For example, bayag or 'testicles,' means courage, guts, or pluck when used in the phrase walang bayag (to have no testicles). Another common expression is walang mukhang ihaharap (no face to present), which means to be ashamed, without dignity and/or self-respect. Here, mukha (face) means one's self esteem.

     In some cases, the body-part nouns become part of an adjectival phrase that describes a personal trait. These include

utak (mind, brain)—in utak-langgam (have a brain like an ant), which means not very smart

balat (skin)—in balat kalabaw (having skin like that a carabao), which means thick-skinned; in balat sibuyas (having skin like that of an onion) or manipis ang balat (thin-skinned), which mean overly sensitive to criticism or teasing

kamay (hand)—in makati ang kamay (having itchy hands), which means that one has kleptomaniac tendencies

Other idiomatic expressions containing body-related terms include verb phrases that express emotional reactions, a suspicious feeling about something, attitudes, state of being (of a person or of something), actions, and nouns that identify relationships with others.

Emotional Reactions

tumayo ang balahibo (the hair on the body stood up)—to feel fear, intense awe, or disgust

isang bakol ang mukha (basket-like face)—to be sad or anxious

pumapalakpak ang tainga (clapping ears)—to feel flattered

nagpanting ang tainga (ears are flushed with anger)—to feel extreme anger

Feelings about Something/one

taas-kilay (raised eyebrows)—to be suspicious

pagdilatan ng mata (to open one's eyes wide on someone)—to be angry at someone


nagkibit ng balikat (to shrug the shoulders)—to be indifferent, not care

pikit-mata (with closed-eyes)—to do something without thinking twice or carefully about it

magtaingang-kawali (to have wok-like ears)—to pretend to be deaf

State of Being of a Person

buto't balat (skin and bones)—to be extremely thin

kapus-palad (to have nothing in one's palms)—to be poor

kumukulo ang tiyan (boiling stomach)—to be hungry

State of Being of Something

magdilang-anghel ka sana (may you have an angel's tongue)—the hope for a statement to be true

dumaan sa ilong (to pass through the nose)—to say something and not mean it

abot-kamay (at hand's reach)—to almost have something; not unreachable

sagad sa buto (sunk to the bones)—to the extreme of something


pagbuhatan ng kamay (to bring down one's hand on)—to slap or physically hurt someone

magsunog ng kilay (burned one's eyebrows)—to study or work until very late

maghugas ng kamay (to wash one's hands)—to avoid responsibility for something

Relationships with Others

katapikang-balikat (patting shoulders with)—have friendly relations with

kabiyak ng dibdib / puso (part of one's chest / heart)—spouse

iisa ang bituka (of one set of intestines)—siblings

lukso ng dugo (jump of the blood)—recognition of sibling relations

apo sa talampakan (grandchild of the sole of the foot)—great-great grandchild

apo sa tuhod (grandchild of the knees)—great-grandchild

kanang-kamay (right hand)—most trusted assistant or aide or right-hand person

     A cursory review of these idiomatic expressions that contain words for body parts, and different uses of these words, yields some interesting insights on how the body might be perceived by Tagalog speakers. As Williams (2003) states, the physical body is a "structural universal" that is at the same time, semantically diverse. In what follows, I reflect on the semantic significance of the body and some of its parts for Tagalog speakers, based on the foregoing identification of vocabulary.

     As demonstrated above, for Tagalog speakers the human body provides a simultaneously conceptual and physical basis for orienting oneself and other objects in space. For example, the semantic extension of body part words such as likod (back), tagiliran (side of body), puwit (buttocks), and ulo (head) to refer to the deictic positioning of one thing or oneself in relation to another thing or person indicates that the body provides the basis for one's spatial orientation or position in space. At the same time, some of these terms are also applied to the position or location of particular parts of things in physical space, such as the top and base of the mountain (the ulo and paa of the mountain, respectively) or the head and foot of the bed (the ulunan and paanan of the bed). Pusod (navel) is also used to refer to the center or bottom of something, as seen in the phrases pusod ng siyudad (center of the city) or pusod ng dagat (bottom of the sea).

     Relationships with other persons are also described using particular parts of the body such as the blood (dugo), intestines (bituka), leg parts (specifically the tuhod, or knees, and talampakan, or the sole of the foot), arm parts (kamay, or hand; balikat, or shoulder), the chest (dibdib), and the heart (puso). What is interesting here is that relationships described through the extremities (arms and legs) and those described through the blood, intestines, chest, and heart seem to reflect degrees of social distance between two individuals. Terms for friendships, work relationships and intergenerational relations (or more socially distant relations) use terms for the legs and arms as in the following:

katapikang-balikat ('patting shoulders with')—have friendly relations with

apo sa talampakan ('grandchild of the sole of the foot')—great-great-grandchild

apo sa tuhod ('grandchild of the knees')—great-grandchild

kanang-kamay ('right hand')—most trusted assistant, aide, or right-hand person

On the other hand, terms for sibling and spousal relations (relationships that involve emotional attachment or members of the same generation) include internal body parts such as blood, the heart, and intestines:

kabiyak ng dibdib / puso ('half of one's chest or heart')—spouse

iisa ang bituka ('of one set of intestines')—siblings

lukso ng dugo ('jump of the blood')—recognition of sibling relations

     These examples suggest that the body, among Tagalog speakers, is perceived as being divided into its 'internal' (loob) and 'external' (labas) parts, with the internal body parts viewed as having deeper significance. This is quite consistent with the use of dugo (blood), dibdib (chest), puso (heart), sikmura (stomach), and bituka (intestines) in expressions that describe one's essence, feelings, state of moral being, and general well-being.3

     Blood seems to be an important part of the body that carries the "essence" of a person. The phrase nasa dugo means 'it's in the blood' and is a kind of folk construction of genetics or biological/innate capacities (Tan 2008). As such, particular personal traits, such as being strong, beautiful, and kind, as well as having criminal predispositions, are to be found 'in one's blood.' This kind of folk biology is also evident in the adoptive choices of some families in the rural Philippines, where it is common for couples to adopt their nieces or nephews if their parents already have more children than they can handle. For these parents, adopting from outside the family is 'dangerous' since one does not know what kind of natural parents the babies have.

     The idea that one's 'essence' or 'nature' is carried in one's blood can be related to the nonbodily use of the word ugat (veins, arteries), which also refers to a cause and the origin of something, given that the dugo (blood) flows through the ugat. The fact that ugat also refers to the root of plants adds to the notion of blood as carrying the essence of a person, since the root of the plant is considered essential to its survival.

     For the Tagalog speaker, the chest (dibdib) and the heart (puso) are the seat of one's convictions, emotional ordeals, and moral being. Note the following expressions:

dibdibin (to use the chest)—to take seriously

nagsikip ang dibdib (tightening of the chest)—to feel extreme sadness, anguish

buo ang dibdib (the chest is whole)—to be firm and confident about something

may tinik sa dibdib (a thorn in the chest)—to feel emotional pain

tumitibok ang puso (the heart is pumping)—to feel strongly about someone or to be attracted to someone

bukas-puso (open-hearted)—to accept with one's whole heart

ginintuang puso (golden-hearted)—to be generous and kind

pusong mamon (heart like a chiffon cake)—to be soft-hearted, compassionate

These expressions describe positive qualities of a person and, at the same time, states of extreme pain and suffering. As such, Tagalog speakers view the quality of one's character through the state of one's heart and chest. This is in contrast to the uses of balat (skin), mukha (face), and other related parts such as body hair (balahibo) and the ears (tainga). These are relatively "external" parts of the body that are used to describe current emotional states of the person, but do not necessarily indicate anything about his or her enduring character traits:

tumayo ang balahibo (the hair on the body stood up)—to feel fear, intense awe, or disgust

isang bakol ang mukha (basket-like face)—to be sad or anxious

di maipinta ang mukha (the look on face cannot be painted)—feeling sad

mukhang biyernes santo (the face like Good Friday)—feeling sad

pumapalakpak ang tainga (clapping ears)—to feel flattered

nagpanting ang tainga (ears are flushed with anger)—to feel extreme anger

The sikmura (stomach) and the bituka (intestines) also seem to be parts of the body that are culturally significant. Idiomatic expressions that contain these terms indicate the physical and general well-being of the individual. Note the following expressions:

di masikmura (cannot stomach) / bumaliktad ang sikmura (the stomach was turned inside-out)—to not tolerate something (like food, a person, or something that happened)

sinisikmura (to be stomached)—to have burning pain in the stomach

malayo sa bituka (far from the intestines)—not be seriously injured

     Here, all the expressions allude to the reaction of the physical body to something it ingested or the state of the body after an injury. At the same time, di masikmura and bumaliktad ang sikmura are also indicators of one's intolerance of someone, something, or an event that happened. As such, these expressions suggest a perception of the stomach as the indicator of one's healthiness as well as the basis for one's (moral) judgment.

     If the stomach is where judgment comes from, intelligence is located in the utak (brain) and the ulo (head). This can be observed in the following expressions:

utak-langgam (have the brain like an ant)—not to be smart

utakan (use the brain on)—to use's one's intelligence to take advantage or be ahead of others

utakin (use the brain)—to use one's mental ability

matigas ang ulo (hard-headed)—not to change one's mind about something; be determined to believe or to think in a particular way

Here, the brain is positioned as an active entity that can be used to get ahead of everyone else. Its quality is evaluated in terms of its resemblance to what is perceived as smart, slow, or stupid animals. The ulo is also used to describe one's ego when used in malaki ang ulo ('to have a big head'), which means to have an inflated ego.

     The terms for the arm and parts of the arm—kamay (hand), braso (upper arm), and palad (palm)—are used in expressions that relate to the state of one's economic well-being or doing a action in a particular way. Note the following terms:

kamayin (to use the hand)—to do something using the hands themselves (for instance, to eat using one's hands instead of using utensils)

mabilis ang kamay (fast hands)—to be able to do or get something with one's hand without other people noticing

makati ang kamay (itchy hands)—tendency to be a kleptomaniac

brasuhin / binraso (to use one's upper arm)—to do with one's full effort or strength; to force something to happen or force someone to do something

kapalaran—luck or fate

sawing-palad—without luck, bad fate

kapus-palad—to be poor

bukas-palad—to be generous

These expressions illustrate how the hands, palm, and arm are perceived as both the instrument and indicator of one's economic fate.

     Aside from referring to the body (and the bodies of other animals and objects), various forms of the term katawan (body) refer to the act of representing an institution or person:

katawanin (verb form)—to represent or act for another

kinatawan (noun)—a representative, delegate, or agent (of a person, institution, and so forth)

kumakatawan (adjective)—acting for or representing someone in a certain capacity

These examples suggest an embodied notion of identity and call attention to the material dimension of one's unique identity as a specific 'body.' While identity is a social construct, the idea of the kinatawan embeds it within the physical body itself.

     The idea of embodiment, in fact, runs throughout the linguistic expressions presented in this paper. That is, in the Tagalog language, the body is not viewed as just a vessel or, by metaphorical extension, a 'container' (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) or object that can do things. It is where one's identity, well-being, and character reside. The names for the body and different body parts are used in ways that show that emotions, states of being, and character are thought and felt to be located within the body and are lived through the body. For example, to be poor is to not have anything in one's palm. Causal power also lies in the body and its parts: to force something to happen is to use one's upper arm; to be attracted to someone is to have a beating heart; to accept something or someone is to have an open heart. As Williams states, the body, while a "structural universal" that we all share, is also "semantically diverse." I hope that this paper was able to "arm its way through" to show that this statement is true.

Appendix 1

Body parts Animal parts Garment parts Other objects Action
baga (lungs) lungs      
balahibo (fine body hairs) feathers, wool, fur      
balat (skin)     1) cover of a book
2) shell of eggs

3) leather
4) coconut husk
5) fruit rind
balbas (beard) whiskers      
balikat (shoulder)     full exertion of effort in performing a task  
bao (cranium)     coconut shell  
batok (nape)       a strike on the nape using the hand
bayag (testicles)     guts, pluck, courage  
baywang (waist)   waist part of a garment    
bibig / bunganga (mouth)     any opening suggestive of a mouth or an entrance or an opening, e.g., of a bottle, pot, volcano, cave  
bisig (arm / forearm)     labor,  manpower  
bituka (intestines) intestines   garden hose  
braso (upper arm/arm)     force  
buto (bone) bones   1) seeds, seeds of fruits
2) grains
daliri (fingers, toes)   part of glove that covers the fingers    
dibdib (chest) breast of fowl      
dila (tongue) tongue flap under the strap of the shoe vibrating piece of a reed instrument 1) act of sticking one’s tongue out
2) act of licking or lapping
dugo (blood) blood   one’s child or offspring  
hita (thigh) upper part of the (hind) legs part of the garment that covers the thighs    
isaw (intestines) animal entrails   a kind of street food in Manila  
kamay (hand)     1) hands of the clock
2) know how, technical skill
act of shaking hands
kandungan (lap)     care, protective care  
katawan (body) trunk or torso part of garment that covers the trunk or upper part of the body 1) part of the automobile that holds the load and passengers
2) body of a dead person
kuko (nail) hoof, claw      
labi (lips)     1) edge of a projecting rim, e.g., of a bottle
2) brink or edge, e.g.,  of a ravine
laman (flesh; muscle; tissue) meat   1) content of a container
2) meaning or substance, e.g., of a concept
leeg (neck) neck part of garment that covers or encircles the neck    
likod (back) back   1) back of the chair, couch
2) opposite of front (or reverse side of something)
mata (eye)     1) node or knot, as in bamboo
2) bud of a potato

3) hard center of a boil/pimple

4) hole, as “in eye of the needle”
mukha (face) face   1) countenance
2) dignity, self-respect

3) main surface of something

4) the front side
ngipin (teeth)     tooth-like part of the saw, comb  
nguso (upper lip, mouth) snout     act of using the lips
paa (leg, foot) leg of animal part of the garment that covers the legs 1) furniture support
2) foot or base of something, e.g., a mountain
palad (palm)     fortune, luck  
panga (jaw) jaw of fish that is cooked (usually tuna or salmon)      
pangil (eyetooth) tusk, fang      
pisngi (cheek)     either of the two fleshy sides of a fruit, e.g., a mango  
puso (heart) heart   1) innermost thoughts and feelings
2) blossom of a banana tree
pusod (navel)     center (e.g., of a city) bottom (e.g., of the sea)  
puwit (buttocks) anus seat of the pants 1) external bottom of pots and other containers
2) at the very last position
sakong (heel)   part of a stocking, sock covering the heel    
siko (elbow)       nudge or hit using the elbow
singit (groin)     1) anything inserted into a slit
2) inserting oneself between two things/persons to get ahead (as in a line)
to interrupt what one is doing to do something else, then going back to what s/he was doing previously
suso (breast, nipple)     any of the four projections at the bottom corners of a sack, basket, and the like act of suckling milk from the mother’s breast
taba (fat) fatty part of meat   1) label for an obese person
2) lard, oil

3) richness and fertility of the soil

4) fertilizer
tadyang (ribs)     1) cut of meat that contains ribs
2) any one of the metal supports of the umbrella
tagiliran (either side of the body) either side of the animal’s body   position near the side of a person or a thing  
tainga (ear) ear   anything shaped like an ear, as the handle of a box or pitcher  
talampakan (sole of the foot)   sole or bottom of a shoes foot (measurement)  
tuhod (knee) knee the part of stockings, trousers covering the knee    
ugat (veins)     1) roots of a plant
2) cause

3) source
ulo (head, brain) head   1) talent
2) sense

3) intelligence

4) top or summit, as in mountains or headlines
5) front part
6) part for pushing, striking, as in for nails

7) the end part of a furniture, e.g., a bed, dining table

8) source

9) superlative degree of something
utak (brain)     1) mental ability 2) talent  


1 The term "Filipino" is used here as an orientating device that places Tagalog speakers as geographically (and culturally) linked to the Philippines. It is not used to refer to the 'national language,' which is another meaning of the term. This study, in fact, focuses on native users of the Tagalog language and acknowledges that Tagalog is only one of the 181 living languages used in the Philippines (Summer Institute of Linguistics 2014).

2 Roy Ellen (1977), cited in Williams (1980a), suggests that "classificatory correspondences between a number of domains . . . can be characterized by their concern with spatial relationships" but that "the relationships, the nature of transferability, is complex" (Ellen 2006[1977]: 101).

3 Prospero Covar (1998) provides a structuralist analysis of Tagalog terms and phrases related to the body in his study of Filipino personhood. Using a "dualist approach" (tambalang lapit), Covar generates a model for Filipino personhood using the imagery of a banga (jar). That is, the person, like a jar, has a labas (literally, outside) and a loob (literally, inside), with both having lalim (depth). Moreover, the loob can have laman (contents; something inside).

He indicates four pairings of body parts that make up Filipino personhood, as shown in the table below:

mukha (face)

dibdib (chest)

tiyan (stomach)

sikmura (stomach)
isipan (thoughts)

puso (heart)

bituka (intestines)

atay (liver)



Covar based his formulation on his analysis of the use of the terms in everyday idiomatic expressions and how these indicated particular kinds of conditions or states of a person's physical, emotional, and social well-being. My paper departs from this approach in at least two ways: 1. I focus exclusively on the use of terms for the body. Covar also includes in his analysis terms that refer to actions of the body, such as tingin (to look) as well as actions done on the body (for example, sa pisngi idinadampi ang halik; sa pisngi ipinaabot ang ma-asawang sampal [a kiss is given on the cheek; the cheek receives the end of a slap]); 2. My study does not focus on the notion of Filipino personhood (Pagkataong Pilipino) but explores perceptions of the body based on an analysis of semantic extensions and metaphorical uses of body-related terms in the Tagalog language.


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