‘Een schaap zegt: bè! en een beer zegt: brom!
Maar ik heb liever kommerkom.’
(A bear says: grum! And a cow says: moo!
But I’d rather have cumbercu)
Who wrote these unforgettable lines of Dutch poetry? Was it Gorter? Or Bloem? Or Rawie? Roland Holst? Kopland? Korteweg? Brands? No, none of these illustrious poets.
If the ASPERGE is the Queen of Vegetables, the cucumber must be the Buffoon. The cucumber is the weirdest, silliest, absurdist clown in the kingdom of plants.
In its garish green garment the wet fool offers itself to us, thick in the middle and tapered on both sides. Usually thinly sliced. It grows on a creeping vine. It has a slight, subtle taste and contains so little protein that it cannot be considered sustaining enough to function as food. It is so moist that it usually consists of more than 90% water. Botanically speaking, a cucumber is classified as a fruit, but most humans treat this joker as a vegetable.
Linguistically speaking the green jester is peculiar to say the least. As a joke it may be wet, but it is a fact that the KOMKOMMER is the only Dutch noun that can adapt to the past as if it were an irregular verb:
Komkommer -> kwamkwammer.
Ik eet komkommer -> ik at kwamkwammer. (nonsense ofcourse!)
Literary speaking the limp mountebank can boast of one of the funniest roles in theatre history. A well-known phrase is: ‘Speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?’ In the first act of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’ (1895) the cucumber sandwiches which were prepared for Lady Bracknell’s visit were all eaten by her hungry nephew. When she arrives, there are none left. She is disappointed and his butler helps her nephew by lying to her, saying: ‘There were no cucumbers in the market this morning’.
Ever since the success of this play, cucumber sandwiches have been extremely popular in England and they are still frequently served at teas, luncheons, and gatherings. In the Netherlands a salad is not complete without cucumbers. Indonesian ‘rijsttafels’ serve cucumber parts to compensate for the salty and spicy dishes.
In the late Middle Ages Dutch KOMKOMMER entered the language via French ‘concombre’ which came from Latin ‘cucumer’. However, as we have seen in yesterday’s posting on the potato, the cucumber’s name was in early Dutch AARDAPPEL (before the 16th century).
Old English had a similar name. According to the Anglosaxon Wikipedia (yes, unbelievable, there is one! Look here) cucumbers or ‘hwerhwettan ēac hātaþ eorþæpplas’. (‘wet beakers’ are also named ‘earth apples’)
But let’s go back to this day and age. Did you know that ‘gherkins’ are cucumbers too? Of course you did. Aren’t we all addicted to pickled gherkins? The Dutch name is ‘augurk’. The Dutch word was probably derived from Lithuanian ‘agurkas’ or Polish ‘ogórek’.
So let’s finish this posting with a small poem by the same poet who wrote the immortal lines with which I started:
Er lag een eiland in de zee.
Daar groeide een augurk.
De zee, die was de Zuiderzee,
Het eiland heette Urk.
(There was an island in the sea. / There grew a ghurkin. / The sea, which was the Zuyder Zee, / The island’s name was Urk.)