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Word of the Day: mammoet, mammoth

MAMMOET, mammoth is the third Dutch word borrowed from Russian. The word has an extremely strange history.


In her fascinating book on loan words etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs recounts the fascinating history of this word. It refers to the woolly mammoth that roamed northern Europe, Asia and America until it became extinct some 4000 years ago. In the Middle Ages people thought the tusks belonged to mythical monsters that had lived before the Flood. The tusks and bones were deemed to have magical healing powers and were sold at exorbitant prices.

The Russians called this mythical beast ‘mamont’. What this Russian word originally meant is unknown. The first publication of this word occurred in 1692 in a book on North and East Tartary. It was written by Amsterdam mayor Nicolaas Witsen who had met tsar Peter the Great and visited Russia several times. A printing error determined the future of the name of the woolly beast. The compositor mistook ‘n’ for ‘u’ and ‘mamont’ became ‘mammout’ and that is why the French still have ‘mammouth’, the Germans ‘Mammut’, the English ‘mammoth’ and the Dutch mammoet. All because of a spelling error.

The largest collection of mammoth bones is in the Leiden museum Naturalis. Fishermen catch mammoth bones at or near the Dogger Bank. In the last Ice Age the North Sea was dry land and on this steppe the mammoth used to roam. So the bottom of the North Sea is scattered with Mammoetbotten (mammoth bones).

Picture: Why this bicycle shop at Stationsweg was called Mammoet Rijwielen. No idea.