Where Words Take Us – Gewaarwording

Zen-Stone Balance sharpens your sense of gewaarwording
Zen Balance

An English speaking friend asked me what word I was going to explore next.



Gewaarwording. (half smiling)

There’s no such word.

Yes, there is. You just don’t know it, but it’s one of those precious Afrikaans words for which English has no equivalent. I know because I went in search of one. 

Margaret Atwood

I was trying to – well, I’m still trying to – find a label for the gewaarwording that filled me when I listened to Margaret Atwood’s reading of her poem, ‘Dearly’, the title poem of her latest collection, published by HarperCollins. 

Margaret Atwood - 2018
Happy Birthday, Margaret Atwood. She shares my dad’s birthday, 18 November. He would have been 86 this year.


Here are the closest English translations I could glean from the Pharos Dictionaries – which is usually my first stop, and very often the only one I need for translations:

Front Cover - HarperCollins 2020
Cover of Dearly

· becoming aware of impressions 

· perception 

· sensation 

· feeling

· experience 

Becoming aware of impressions, although partially spot-on, is a four-word concept, which disqualifies it out of hand. 

Let’s work with perception for a moment. According to the Lexico, perception is the ability to become aware of something through the senses and then interpret the external stimuli through neurophysiological processes like memory. It’s not necessarily an instant awareness like when you take the first sourish-sweet bite of lemon meringue. Sometimes it takes longer to percolate through, like when you wake up from a deep sleep to the high-pitched zzzzz of mosquito wings. 

But gewaarwording is more than that.

There may be a sensation – even a bodily reaction. The cold of a Polish winter morning with clear blue sky and bright sunshine will make you gasp for breath. When I’ve just finished a job the sound of the running water fountain in our back garden always draws a sigh from me, and I feel rid of the tension that’s built up over the days, weeks, or months leading up to the deadline.

Old Typewriter on Wooden Desk
A Maker of Poems – 3 Darling Street, Hanover, South Africa

Atwood’s reading of her poem had evoked all these words, but it also stirred something in me – an emotion, a feeling – and it is this experience in its entirety for which English has no name. The gewaarwording embodies all of the above and more.

Writing about the loss of her partner of forty-eight years, Atwood says:

Dearly beloved, gathered here together

in this closed drawer,

I miss the missing, those who left earlier.

I miss even those who are still here.

I miss you all dearly.

*With thanks and acknowledgement to my editor, Arja Salafranca

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


8 Responses

  1. That is a wonderful word – and I didn’t realise you have it in Afrikaans as well. Should have known of course because it is so close to my own mother tongue German. Gewahr werden ist what we call it and it is exactly the same elusive and encompassing word that you are describing. It is an awakening of the senses and understanding and growing consciousness, a moving of the mind.

    1. Ja, aber das sind drei Wörter! 🙂 And yes! German and Afrikaans have a much closer relationship than either of the two has with English. Your definition is wonderful, though! ‘It is an awakening of the senses and understanding and growing consciousness, a moving of the mind.’ Just perfect! Thanks for the lovely comment, Ulrike. 🙂

      1. You are welcome. I was thinking of the other words that also resonate: Gewahr has the same root as Wahrheit (truth), and is close to Gewähr (something that is reliable and is guaranteed). Gewahrwerden has those as neighbours in our consciousness and therefore conveys a sense of solid reliability that is the essence of the concept of becoming aware of a truth.

  2. I read your article on the day it was published. I didn’t leave a response at the time as I wanted to see if I would expeience this gewaarwording. I listened to the Margaret Atwood’s via the link that you supplied. And then I sat with it – the word gewaarwording. It’s a beautiful word that I had not heard before. Thank you for introducing me to it.

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