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Word of the Day: boulevard (promenade)

Words move in mysterious ways. Or should I say ‘migrate’? Yes, some words migrate in very mysterious ways indeed. Take BOULEVARD for instance. ‘What about it?’ you say, ‘it’s French, obviously. A “boulevard” being a wide, long and distinguished road. Paris is full of them. And in Scheveningen the BOULEVARD is a long wide walkway for pedestrians stretching between the land and the beach. A word clearly borrowed from French.


Sure, but what if I tell you that the word ‘boulevard’ itself wasn’t originally French at all? That BOULEVARD is a corruption of Dutch and German ‘bolwerk’ which means a ‘wall of a fortification’? The English borrowed this word as ‘bulwark’ and the Russians as ‘bolverk’. Middle Dutch ‘bolwerk’ was derived from ‘bolle’, meaning ‘plank’, ‘tree trunk’ or maybe ‘bullet’. So how did the word move from a defensive structure to a promenade?

As you probably know from your visit to a town with ancient walls, you can walk on top of some of them. This footpath adopted the name ‘bolwerk’. The French garbled the word and applied the resulting BOULEVARD to a dignified street. In Belgium the first meaning is still ‘eminent street’ whereas the Dutch applied it to the promenade by the sea. The BOULEVARD is where you can saunter and parade in the sunshine while licking an icecream and holding your loved one’s hand.

The Hague is very proud of its new BOULEVARD, which opened officially in April 2013 and is really a dike in camouflage. This seawall is one kilometre long and rises twelve metres above Mean Sea Level. And so the word BOULEVARD has moved back to its original meaning of fortification against the sea. This ‘bolwerk’ (bastion) is integrated in the new boulevard.

The history of Scheveningen is strongly linked with the rise of the monarchy which started exactly two hundred years ago this year. In 1813 the Netherlands was liberated from the French invaders and Napoleon was exiled to Elba. On Tuesday ,30 November prince William of Orange-Nassau sailed back to the Netherlands because he was asked to be the first Dutch King. When he arrived at Scheveningen there was this Scheveninger and Orangist who helped him set his royal foot on land without becoming irreverently wet. His name was Jacob Pronk (1762-1839), he had helped William’s father escape from Holland when the French invaded the country and he was my grandmother’s forebear.

Jacob Pronk received a generous reward for being such a loyal citizen. And with this reward he founded a wooden bathing house in the Scheveningen dunes in 1818. In this house wealthy guests were entertained who were promised an improved health after having been immersed in icy cold seawater.

A couple of years later Jacob Pronk could afford a stone bathing house and in 1828 he was a wealthy man. Sixty years later the Kurhaus was built and in the twentieth century the number of seaside visitors proliferated.

I am sure that we’ll come back to this interesting history later. For now I would like to draw your attention to the Panorama Mesdag in the Zeestraat in The Hague. You can see and experience Scheveningen there as it was in 1881. If you haven’t seen it, go and see the coastline of Scheveningen before it was turned into a bulwark and a BOULEVARD.