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Word of the Day: wakker (awake, brisk)

Are you, too, a fan of Danish ‘Forbrydelsen’ (The Killing), ‘Bron’/‘Broen’ (The Bridge) or ‘Borgen’, Swedish ‘Wallander’, ‘Män som hatar kvinnor’ (Men Who Hate Women’) or Norwegian ‘Varg Veum’?


When you’re Dutch and addicted to Scandinavian television series, as I am, and spend a lot of your leisure time watching weird crime solvers on the trail of sadistic serial killers in doleful Scandinavian settings, you cannot help but notice the many Dutch sounding words.

Words like WAKKER, GAMMEL, FLIKKER, LOEDER are clearly heard, but in the subtitles I search in vain for a word that could be its translation. Each time I experience these flickers of recognition I wonder, how do our languages interconnect? Some linguists call words that sound alike False Friends, while etymologists point out that there is a Germanic family relationship between Dutch, English, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. So these familiar words must be aunts or uncles, brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, or cousins.

On this week’s page of our Direct Dutch Facebook group I will be your sleuth and investigate several of these family ties. Let’s start with the word WAKKER (awake, brisk).

In the Wallander series Kurt Wallander is an investigator employed by the Swedish police in south-eastern Sweden in Skåne län. The original crime novels were written by Henning Mankell and adapted for Swedish and British television. The stories are set in the medieval town of Ystad and surroundings with its cobbled streets and Gothic churches. Wallander fans who go on pilgrimage to this town call it ‘Vackra Ystad’. Now this does not mean that the town is awake, no the Swedish word ‘vacker’ means ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’. Pretty Ystad!

WAKKER stems from the verb WAKEN, meaning ‘to watch’ or ‘to be alert’. In Old English it is ‘wacor’, in Old Norwegian ‘vakr’ and in Middle Dutch ‘wacker’. They all have the same meaning of alertness or briskness. Of course, being alert implies that you are not asleep. Later on in its evolution WAKKER must have attracted other senses in different languages. Dutch WAKKER now usually means ‘awake’ as in ‘zij is wakker’ (she is awake). But the word can still also mean ‘brisk’ or ‘lively’ when it is used attributively as in: ‘een wakkere meid’ (a spry girl).

Questions for our Scandinavian friends: Can ‘vacker’ mean ‘awake’ in your language? If not, what word is used for ‘not being asleep’? And have you any idea why and when ‘liveliness’ evolved into ‘prettiness’?

Tomorrow’s word is GAMMEL, which does not mean ‘old’ in Dutch.