Why you should care

Because some words are very beautiful. 

The shop is crammed with words. Tucked in an alley near historic Galata Tower, Istanbul’s Guzel Kelimeler Dukkani (“Shop of Beautiful Words”) looks like a library gift shop. It’s brightly lit, clean and modern, but some of its goods are hundreds of years old.

Ehlikeyf. Kismet. Hemdem. The words are emblazoned on T-shirts and notebooks, teacups and liquor glasses. The designs are simple, timeless. They’re the outcome of a social media project called Lugat365, started by digital strategist Onur Ertugrul and his wife. It’s an homage to Turkey’s words — some still used every day, others all but forgotten. Its motto is “some words are very beautiful,” and it aims to make customers rethink the beauty of the Turkish language.

During the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s language absorbed influence from Persian, Arabic and even French. When I first moved to Turkey, I’d walk by a sign two or three times before realizing it was an Arabic word I already knew. Although some Turks prefer to turn toward Europe and away from the Middle East, you have to look only at the language to see the connection. W’s might become v’s, j’s might become c’s, but each word is a thread to a complex past that doesn’t always surface.

It means sharing the same air. This is such a close friend that you’re sharing the same air in your past.

Onur Ertugrul, Digital Strategist

Some are untranslatable words we wish we had in English. Ertugrul flips through the book and points to hemdem. “Do you have any word in English that means close friend?” “Maybe ‘childhood friend,’ ‘lifelong friend,’” I say. “Or ‘soul sister.’” He nods. “Hemdem is from a Persian background,” he says. “It means sharing the same air. This is such a close friend that you’re sharing the same air in your past.”

What fascinates Ertugrul is not just the words themselves, but the way they came to be; how daily life created the romantic words from Turkey’s past. By resurfacing them, he hopes to bring a bit of their spirit back to our time.

Lugat365 posted a word a day through 2015 — one of the most violent years in Turkey’s recent history. Both Istanbul and Ankara were hit by multiple suicide bombings that killed hundreds in total. For Ertugrul, posting lighter words didn’t feel right, so he and his wife spent long nights choosing words for the coming morning. “There are unfortunately a lot of unique words to express different versions of pain in Turkish,” he says. “On those bad days, [young people] couldn’t find how to express themselves. There is no emoji for grief.” When Lugat365 shared yas, the word for mourning, it went viral.

The project’s followers — currently numbering more than 350,000 on Instagram, 170,000 on Twitter — come from all political stripes, Ertugrul notes. Turkey is a divided country — the government is wildly popular among many supporters, while critics say it’s destroying Turkey’s democracy. For Ertugrul, the goal is to help unchain the words’ social boundaries from that polarization.

To be sure, bringing people together helps sell more notebooks. But it’s true that Turkey’s language also lends itself to division. English might have three words that mean the same thing, but the one I use usually won’t tell you who I voted for. In Turkish, the origins of words can sometimes denote a person’s political beliefs. And words from the Ottoman era are attractive to anyone who looks at the past with nostalgia — including the government.

“It seems that everyone is taking different aspects from the past, but at the end of the day, we both love that inner feeling of the words’ connection to the past,” Ertugrul says. “We both believe in that.”

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