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Word of the Day: affreus, horrid, hideous

Merci, chère Marielle, for this delightfully French word which entered the Dutch language at the end of the 18th century. In this enlightened period Dutch high society was extremely impressed by French culture.


From 1795 until 1813 our country was even ruled by the French. This meant the end of two hundred years of Republic. In 1806 Napoleon put his brother Louis on the throne and the Netherlands became a monarchy. Because King Louis did his best for the Kingdom Holland he was well-liked. He even tried to learn and speak Dutch. But apparently his pronunciation was AFFREUS. In a speech he said in Dutch ‘Ik ben uw koning’. But koning, pronounced the French way, sounds like ‘konijn’, so the Dutch heard him say: ‘I am your rabbit.’

AFFREUS stems from French ‘affreux’ meaning terrible, hideous, horrid, horrible. Would an average Dutchman or woman use this word? No, definitely not. Why not? Because in this day and age it sounds affected. People use it now to poke fun at snobs.

In the nineteenth century it was a word regularly used in higher circles. Hague author Louis Couperus, for instance, used it in his famous novel ‘Eline Vere’ (1889): ‘Het is een goed mensch, juffrouw Voermans, meen ik, maar affreus, en mager als een boonenstaak.. (She is a good person, Miss Voermans, I suppose, but horrid and skinny as a beanpole.’

Yesterday I was at the Hague’s literary museum where a new exhibition was opened in tribute of Jan Siebelink. Though this popular author studied and translated French literature he would never use AFFREUS. The previous exhibition was a celebration of Marten Toonder’s writings and drawings. He often made use of stilted Dutch in his graphic novels of Heer Olivier B. Bommel and Tom Poes.

AFFREUS is a typical word for Bommel’s neighbour who features in these novels. This cocky aristocratic person is Marquis De Canteclaer van Barneveldt. This pompous cock, this coxcomb sprinkles French in his Dutch: ‘Parbleu’, ‘Par exemple’ and of course: ‘Affreux’. So here are another three reasons why you should learn Dutch. Read Siebelink, Toonder and Couperus. Don’t be AFFREUS, learn Dutch. You know where.