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Word of the Day: bitterbal (???)

Looking back at my recent ‘Words of the Day’, my musings on Dutch words are getting longer every day. The words LICHAAM, GEEST and HUFTER captivated me so much that I couldn’t stop writing. I know, we all have ‘an infinity of business to do which makes the head full’ (as Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary in March 1660, not long before he sailed out from London to The Hague to meet the new British King). So, I’ll try to keep these posts somewhat shorter from now on.



BITTERBAL (/bItəbɑl/)… Yesterday these small brown balls were served on a platter by Jenny, one of our intensive students. Jenny loves BITTERBALLEN and she very generously shared the hot crusty snacks with us.

In our series of favourite Dutch words this is the first time that there is no English equivalent. The dictionary explains: BITTERBAL, ‘type of croquette served as an appetizer’.

This definition doesn’t tell us much. Jenny was not eating her BITTERBALLEN as an appetizer, no, for her they were her lunch. And ‘croquette’, what is a KROKET? A KROKET is usually shaped into a cylinder and then deep-fried. A BITTERBAL, however, is in the shape of a small ball. It is much smaller than the standard beef, veal, potato or prawn croquette and it is a favourite at receptions.

Apparently the Dutch are hooked on BITTERBALLEN and KROKETTEN. According to research in 2008 (as quoted by Foodlog) most KROKET lovers are between 35-50 years old. Together they eat 350 million of these snacks per year. On average one every two weeks.

What is the meaning? BITTERBAL consists of two words. BAL = ball and BITTER = bitter. Conclusion: a small ball bitter of taste. WRONG! As Jenny will attest, BITTERBALLEN are not bitter at all. The medieval word BITTER comes from BIJTEN, to bite. BITTER therefore meant ‘sharp’ and then ‘bitter’ of taste. A BITTER is an alcoholic beverage made with a bitter extract from herbs (‘bitters’). So a BITTERBAL is a BAL usually eaten when you drink a BITTER, a BITTERTJE or a BORREL. Except for Jenny of course. Eet smakelijk en proost!