Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

The death this week of the ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin got me thinking about this multi-sense and multifaceted word. Aretha was of course an exponent, perhaps the greatest, of the kind of music known as soul or soul music; but for her many millions of admirers she also had qualities that are expressed in another meaning of the word: the ability to express strong feelings and affect people’s emotions through her music.

The first meanings of soul to enter the English language were those in the first sense in Macmillan Dictionary’s entry: the feeling, thinking part of a person, and the spiritual part that is believed by most religions to continue to exist after death. Soul is also used to refer to a person; to a particular type of person, as in ‘a nice old soul‘; or to people in general. A lost soul is someone who seems unhappy and unable to cope with life. Places and things as well as people can have souls: we can talk about the soul of a city or a community, or say that something has lost its soul.

Soul food is the traditional food of African Americans living in the southern US, while soul-searching is careful thought about your beliefs and attitudes. A soulmate is someone with whom you feel an unusual affinity, while a soul-destroying situation is one that makes you very unhappy.

Soul features in many idiomatic expressions, including keep body and soul together and be the soul of something, meaning to be a perfect example of it. Someone who is the life and soul is very lively at social events including, but not limited to parties. Someone who is willing to sell their soul, meanwhile, is willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.

Soul is of Germanic origin and related to Dutch ‘ziel’ and German ‘Seele’.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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