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Word of the Day: strand (beach)

All the Dutchies want…. is ZON, ZEE and ZAND. 
That’s the basic buzzz and bizzz, once summer has landed. ZON (sun), ZEE (sea), ZAND (sand) spell STRAND (beach). And which STRAND? Scheveningen STRAND of course! So that’s where over eight million day trippers enjoy themselves each year and that’s where seven million tourists spend sultry nights in sea resort hotels.


The Dutch take pride in being solitary people, except when the STRAND bathes in sunlight. Then they all flock together on the long sandy road that stretches from Belgium via Zeeland to the Hook of Holland and then to Den Helder from where one can hop from island to island.

The word (het) STRAND means ‘flat shore’. It is one of the few words that have not changed since Anglo-Saxon times (Old English: strand). It must have come from a verb in a vanished language which probably meant ‘to stretch out’. At first it did not only refer to the seashore, it was also used for river banks. In 1246 the Strand was already a London street name.

So why has English exchanged STRAND for ‘beach’. Good question! I don’t know. The word ‘beach’ comes from Old English ‘bæce’ (stream). In the period of King Henry VIII the round worn-out pebbles on the British seashore were called beaches. Maybe they used the word specifically for a pebble beach because ‘strand’ sounded more like a sandy beach.

Once upon a time the Scheveningen STRAND was definitely not the place to be. In the Middle Ages the only people to be found on Dutch beaches were fishermen. The sea was a terrifying place swarming with monsters from hell. There were mermaids and mermen, leviathans and other snakes etcetera. Landlubbers had no business being there. Every now and then one of these huge monsters would strand. Nobody knew then that these whales were mammals.

From the end of the sixteenth century this terrific view of beach and sea changed. The stranded whales had something to do with it. People got curiouser and curiouser and wanted to see them with their own eyes. The Age of Invention, the Golden Age, Dutch renaissance was full of possibilities around 1600. The age of great artists, scientists, inventors, layers and philosophers had just begun. One of the lawyers whose name will be forever connected with the sea is Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) because he wrote a slim but enormously influential book, called ‘Mare liberum’. In this book ‘The Free Sea’ (published 1609) Grotius claimed that the sea belonged to no one and that all nations were free to use it for trade.

Grotius was a great friend of the inventor Simon Stevin (1548-1620). About 1601 Stevin wanted to show stadtholder Prince Maurits of Orange how fast the eighty kilometres could be travelled along the STRAND from Scheveningen to Petten in a sail wagon. The Prince had invited 27 passengers on this fiendish trip. On board there was a mixed group of Europeans, including both Dutch and foreign diplomats and – strangely enough – the Spanish prisoner-of-war General Francisco de Mendoza. Maurits’ half-brother Frederick Henry was there, and so was the young Hugo Grotius. With the Prince at the helm they flew along the seashore to Petten in less than two hours.

It must have been ecstasy! Grotius called the sail wagon the ‘wind wagon’ The grateful youngster immortalized the trip by wind wagon in 24 poems in Greek and Latin. Here is one of them.

Wind wagon
Stevin, who first conceived the art of weighing and ciphering
and knew how ebb and flood move our seas
by the veering and turning of the planet,
caused a wagon driven by wind to fly over sand.

Carried forward by the winds
past the waves, along the ground,
give me but such a wagon
and I shall sail the world around.

Stevin, die eerst de weeg- en cijferkunst bedacht
en wist hoe onze zee door eb en vloed beweegt
dankzij de zwaai en draai van de planeet,
liet over zand een wagen vliegen met windkracht.

Door de winden voortgedragen
langs de golven, op de grond,
geef mij enkel zulk een wagen,
en ik vaar de aardbol rond.
(© freely rendered into Dutch and English by Ruud Hisgen)