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Word of the Day: laf (cowardly, insipid)

Over the next couple of days I would like to examine a series of words that start with /l/ and end in /f/. LAF, LEF, LOF, LIEF and LIJF. Have they anything in common? The first of these short yet significant words is LAF.


LAF can have several meanings in Dutch. ‘De man is geen held, maar een lafaard, heel LAF’ (The man is not a hero but a coward, very faint-hearted). So LAF and LAFAARD are related. The opposite of LAF is DAPPER (brave) or MOEDIG (courageous).

The second meaning of LAF is ‘insipid’ as in ‘Bier zonder alcohol is laf’ (beer without alcohol is insipid). This meaning of LAF can also be applied to excuses as in: ‘laffe excuses’ (feeble excuses). A synonym of this kind of LAF is FLAUW. ‘A corny or vapid joke’ is ‘een flauwe of laffe grap’.

The question is: which of these two meanings came first? Nobody knows, but the meaning of ‘tastelessness’ was probably earlier than ‘cowardly’. The Middle Dutch word LAF was probably derived from the Germanic verb ‘lafa’ which meant ‘hang’ or ‘bend’. A LAFAARD (coward) is spineless, bends his will and lets his shoulders hang. The abusive word LABBEKAK (coward), which is still very much in use, is clearly related to LAF.

So where does the word ‘coward’ come from? From the thirteenth century Old French word ‘coart’. A ‘co’ was the tail of an animal. So a ‘coward’ is someone who has his tail between his legs. In today’s French a coward is a ‘poltron’. The translation of ‘poltron’ in Dutch is ‘angsthaas’ (scaredy hare). A hare is a cowardly animal, always on the run. In one of the oldest French and Dutch texts from the thirteenth century ‘Van den vos Reynaerde/Of Reynaert the Fox’ the name of the hare is ‘Cuwaert’.

In this wonderful tale the hare is the king’s servant. The Fox, who is the cleverest and cruellest of all animals, leads the hare away from King Nobel the lion’s protection under false pretences and of course turns him into a lovely meal.

Here is a short quote from Middle Dutch just to give you a taste of the medieval story which was retold by a Willem. We know nothing of this Willem except that he was an absolutely brilliant poet and that he once wrote another poem called ‘Madocke’. A poem that vanished without any traces.

“Lude riep hi [Reynaert]: ‘Cuwaert, comt hare!
Comet voer den coninc, Cuwaert.’
Die diere saghen dese vaert;
hem allen wonderde wat daer ware.
Cuwaert die ghinc met vare;
hem wonderde wat die coninc woude.
Reynaert sprac: ‘Cuwaert, hebdi coude?
Ghi bevet. Zijt blide al sonder vaer
ende secht minen heere den coninc waer.’”

“Loudly he [Reynaert] shouted: ‘Cuwaert, come here!
Come before the king, Cuwaert.’
The animals saw him move;
they all wondered what it meant.
Cuwaert went with trepidation;
he wondered what the king wanted.
Reynaert said: ‘Cuwaert, are you cold?
You are trembling. Cheer up, don’t be afraid
and tell my lord the king the truth.’”

From: ‘Van den vos Reynaerde/Of Reynaert the Fox’, Besamusca, Bouwman, Summerfield, Amsterdam University Press, 2009