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Word of the Day: lief (sweet)

Today’s word LIEF has nothing to do with our previous L*F-words LAF (cowardly) and LEF (guts). LIEF is one of those words that can have many meanings. As a noun: ‘joy’ or ‘beloved’. As an adjective: ‘beloved’, ‘dear’, ‘kind’, ‘agreeable’ and even ‘cute’. All these words, however, don’t even get close to the warm, affectionate sense that Dutch LIEF has in the phrase: ‘ik vind je zo lief’ (I love you dearly). French ‘cher’ and German ‘nett’ are off-centre. French ‘précieux’ (or rather ‘précieuse’) and German ‘lieb’ come closer. Perhaps the closest English word is ‘sweet’.


When I was at Dirk and Patty’s wedding ceremony last Wednesday in the Rotterdam townhall, they swore each other to share LIEF EN LEED (joy and sorrow) for ever. Not that they expressed this pledge in those exact words but that’s more or less the idea of a HUWELIJK, wedding, isn’t it? The wedding registrar (who happened to be their friend Hans, see photo) showed them this slogan: ‘Heb LIEF. Word jezelf.’, a phrase meaning something like: ‘Love someone and become yourself.’ Hans objected to this phrase because it was put in the imperative and, so he said, the word LIEFDE (love) by nature resists all possible limiting forces.

The idea behind the phrase is that a human can only discover who he or she really is in an affectionate bond with someone else. As Hans said, it doesn’t really matter if the other person is the opposite or equal in character. In both cases the true self will reveal itself, on the understanding that the two partners allow each other to grow.

The word LIEF is the key to any good relationship. It is an ancient Germanic word which also existed in Old English as ‘lēof’. In modern English the word has only survived in the phrase ‘I would as lief sit as stand’. In the tenth century it already meant ‘beloved’, ‘dear’, ‘well-liked’, ‘much-liked’ or ‘popular’. It is clear that Dutch LIEF, German ‘lieb’ and English ‘love’ are family. French ‘cher’ or ‘aimé’ are outsiders.

The LIEFSTE (sweetest) poem ever written in this world is a Dutch poem and the author is Herman Gorter who lived from 1864 to 1927. It is not only as LIEF as LIEF can be, it is also very simple in vocabulary. Any student of Dutch, beginner or advanced, can understand it with the aid of a dictionary.

Because you are my LIEVE, dear ‘virtuele vrienden’ (virtual friends) I’ll provide an English translation so that you can appreciate it even more. This LIEVE poem is for all those who have a passionate reason to use the word LIEF in Dutch or its equivalent in whichever language. I would like to dedicate my translation especially to Patty and Dirk and to Nancy Jiménez, who wrote about an earlier posting: ‘this was so appropriate for me since I will be having my BRUILOFT (wedding) this upcoming June’. Congratulations Nancy.

Herman Gorter’s untitled poem was taken from the volume of poetry ‘Verzen’ (1890). I changed the archaic ‘oo’ and ‘ee’ to single ‘o’ and ‘e’. The spelling of ‘vin’ in line 2 reflects spoken language.

Zie je ik hou van je,
ik vin je zo lief en zo licht —
je ogen zijn zo vol licht,
ik hou van je, ik hou van je.

En je neus en je mond en je haar
en je ogen en je hals waar
je kraagje zit en je oor
met je haar er voor.

Zie je ik wou graag zijn
jou, maar het kan niet zijn,
het licht is om je, je bent
nu toch wat je eenmaal bent.

O ja, ik hou van je,
ik hou zo vrees’lijk van je,
ik wou het helemaal zeggen —
Maar ik kan het toch niet zeggen.

D’you see I love you so,
I find you so sweet and so light —
your eyes are so full of light,
I love you so, I love you so.

And your nose and your mouth and your hair
and your eyes and your neck where
your collar is and your ear
stuck behind your hair.

D’you see I’d like to be
you so much, but it cannot be,
the light is around you, you are
just what you always are.

O yes, I love you much,
I love you terribly much,
I’d like so much to say it all –
yet no I still can’t say it at all.

(translation © Ruud Hisgen, 2013)