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Word of the Day: boterham (slice of bread)

Such a common word and, yet on closer inspection, so weird. Our daily BOTERHAM refers to a piece or a slice of bread. It is sometimes translated as sandwich, but mistakenly so. A sandwich is two slices of bread with something in between. As the BOTER (butter) indicates, a BOTERHAM used to be a slice of buttered bread. But that is no longer so. BOTERHAM is a piece of breadsliced off a loaf with or without butter.


Okay, we’ve explained BOTER in BOTERHAM, but what about the HAM part. I used to think that it referred to ‘ham’, but no, no, NO! The original word was ‘boteram’. There is no pork in BOTERHAM. Ham on a slice of buttered bread is a BOTERHAM MET HAM.

The etymologists are groping in the dark. After all those years they have not found an explanation for this word that was written down for the first time in 1567, the tragical year in which the detested Spanish Duke of Alba instituted the Council of Troubles aka the Council of Blood to punish the Dutch ringleaders of the ‘troubles’, an ill-considered action which led to the foundation of the Dutch Republic in 1588.

It is telling that the only other language I know that has a special name for a slice of bread is French. The word ‘tartine’ comes from the word ‘tarte’ meaning ‘round bread’ in the Middle Ages. Now ‘tarte’ means ‘cake’, ‘pastry’. Dutch ‘taart’ was borrowed from our southern neighbours.

Elmar thanks for suggesting BOTERHAM. You must be very disappointed now and so am I. What else can we say about the matter?

BOTERHAM, as you surely know, is called a BAMMETJE by kids, because the word is too long and difficult for most toddlers.

The Dutch learn to eat their BAMMETJES from the moment they were weaned from the breast. For breakfast and for lunch, and sometimes for dinner too. Everywhere you see the Dutch tuck into their BOTERHAMMETJES. Usually with a glass of milk.

People who are not from the Netherlands look at this phenomenon in surprise and dismay. Even in restaurants and lunchrooms you see Dutch people eat a slice of bread with cheese or ham and something green (lettuce) or red (tomatoe) on the side to make the sober plate look a little bit more cheerful.

Photo of Moppie aka Blip by Yolande (thanks)