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Word of the Day: huilen (cry, howl)

After having looked at the human character traits that we unjustly associate with BEESTEN, beasts, DIEREN, animals, KATTEN, cats, POESJES, pussies, HONDEN, dogs, KIPPEN, chickens, etcetera let’s now turn to genuine human emotions and how we express them. Let’s start with the weepy tearful HUILEN.


The woeful sound of this word echoes primitive outcries going back all the way to a time when man could not yet articulate pain or grief in language. Our ancestors must have sounded like howling wolves when they were hurt or when they lost a dear one.

The word HUILEN has two distinct meanings in Dutch. The most common meaning is to turn on the waterworks and make sobbing noises. The other meaning is indeed to blare, whine or howl.

Originally the Dutch did not commit any acts of HUILEN when they were shedding tears! The Middle Dutch verb was ‘screyen’ or ‘wenen’. Both words are still in use as ‘schreien’ and ‘wenen’. They now sound old fashioned and pseudo poetic, however. So try to avoid them.

In French the word for HUILEN is ‘pleurer’ and in Italian ‘piangere’. Both verbs go back to the Latin word meaning ‘to beat’ (‘plodere’ and ‘plangere’). Apparently southern European people prefer to express their grief by beating one’s breast and making a fuss.

That doesn’t mean that northern European people experience less grief. In fact, there was a time when mourners could hire people who cried and bawled near the corpse of a loved one. To bawl in Dutch is BALKEN, so these actors were called HUILEBALKEN. To this day the Dutch call a crybaby EEN HUILEBALK.

Apparently the shedding of tears as an expression of grief, elation, awe and pleasure is a unique human trait in the world of animals. Babies start their lives howling without tears. Zsuzsa and Christian’s son Noah, for instance, cries a lot, but still without tears.