• Ilinca Stroe

One word at a time: „Seamă”

Words can be fascinating little gems. Some, because of how they sound - for example, lalelele, “the tulips”. Some others, because of their meaning or etymology, or the way in which their meaning departs from (or relates back to) their origin. For example, Romanian anapoda, meaning “wrongly”, “in a disorganised way”, comes from Greek ana-, “back” or “again”, plus pous, “foot”. Therefore, it might literally mean “(stepping) with the same foot again” or perhaps “stepping backwards”, and it might consequently imply that doing something properly requires alternation, rather than exact repetition, or perhaps that taking steps back is walking the wrong way. In both interpretations, hopping on only one foot instead of walking with two, and going backwards instead of walking onwards are... anapoda. The thing is, looking into such words and their meaning/s often yields little philosophical insights.

Similarly, the Romanian noun seamă is fascinating because although it has a gender (feminine), a singular and a plural form (o seamă, două semi), it’s never ever used on its own. As an individual word, we can literally say it doesn’t mean anything; it’s useless and, technically, doesn’t exist. It comes from Hungarian szám, meaning “number”, but it doesn’t have the same distinct meaning in Romanian. If we want to say “I’m writing a number”, we don’t say “scriu o seamă”; if we want to say “8 and 13 are my lucky numbers”, we don’t say “8 and 13 sunt semile mele norocoase”. Seamă doesn’t mean “number”: as an individual word, it means nothing.

Instead, it carries the concept of number in numerous phrases. Put differently, while it means nothing on its own, it has various meanings related to the idea of number, quantity or counting as a component in various phrases. Let’s review and put into context some of the most frequent such phrases.

The most common one is “a-şi da seama de ceva”, to realise or to figure out something, as in:

“Ana şi Simion sunt fraţi.” / “Ana and Simion are siblings.”

“Serios? Nu mi-am dat seama.” / “Really? I didn’t realise that.”


“Cum se deschide cafetiera?” / “How do you open the coffee machine?”

“Nu ştiu, nu-mi dau seama.” / “I don’t know, I can’t figure it out.”

Equally common is “a ţine seama de ceva”, translatable as “to take something into account” or “to bear in mind”, as in:

“Mergem sâmbătă la Predeal?” / “Are we going to Predeal on Saturday?”

“Da, dar ţine seama de faptul că trebuie să plecăm devreme.” / “Yes, but bear in mind that we have to leave early.”


“De ce să nu fac cum vreau?” / “Why shouldn’t I have it my way?”

“Pentru că trebuie să ţii seama de părerea celorlalţi.” / “Because you have to take into account the others’ opinion.”

Finally, it’s also quite common to say “mai cu seamă”, an adverbial phrase meaning “especially” or “particularly”, as in:

“Ţi-a plăcut prezentarea?” / “Did you enjoy the presentation?”

“Da, mai cu seamă partea vizuală.” / “Yes, particularly the visuals.”

So what philosophical insight can we draw from the fact that Hungarian szám means “number”, while

Romanian seamă means nothing individually, i.e. on its own, but carries so many shades of meaning in a variety of phrases? Well, one (jocular) insight would be that individuals might sometimes seem worthless but they can do a wonderful job in teams. :) Also, it’s quite remarkable how linked the idea of number is with awareness (see a-şi da seama de) and the mind (see a ţine seama de). It is as if, in an interplay between words and numbers, words (like seamă) could obliterate themselves to the point of allowing numbers (etymologically, the concept behind seamă) to shine through as proof of the mind’s action – as if an active mind, a mind that’s awake and working, realising things, taking them into account, is a mind occupied with (the concept of) a number.

But that, perhaps, is too much of an insight. At the end of the day, numbers make you think, but words can make you wonder. Seamă does, de bună seamă.

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