Water has always been a loyal companion and a profoundly distrusted rival of the Dutch. Water can be both fresh (zoet, sweet) and salt (zout), friend and foe! So if I were to tell you what the oldest word is in the Dutch language, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it is related to water. So what is the oldest word? Linguist and etymologist Nicolette van der Sijs in her Chronological Dictionary (2001) gives us the answer. What? Yes, it is WAD.
The word WAD was first written down in a Latinised form as ‘vadam’ by the Roman Publius Cornelius Tacitus (about 55-117 CE) in the fifth book of his ‘Histories’ in the year 107 CE. With ‘vada’ or ‘wada’ Tacitus refers to a Batavian village which still exists as Wadenoijen, a village on the river Linge near the town of Tiel in the province of Gelderland. A ‘vada’ is a fordable or wadable place in a river.
The two Dutch words that followed ‘vada’ were ‘twee’ (two) and ‘trecht’ (crossing). Two can be found in the name of the province of Twente and ‘trecht’ in the name of the town of Utrecht. Striking that the first and third oldest Dutch words both mean wadable place.
What do these two puny words WAD and TRECHT say about the place that we now call Holland or Netherland? ‘The little things are infinitely the most important’, Sherlock Holmes remarked and I agree. So let’s take a closer look at these words. Let’s investigate the places and people where they were born.
So step into my time machine and let’s buzz to the period in which the illustrious Nazarene was born. Our landing place, however, will be much further north. We’ll touch ground in a much colder and wetter climate, in the delta where the rivers Rhine and Meuse flow out into the North Sea. Our guide is the Roman Pliny (23-79 CE). Before we tour the marshy country he gives us a quick run-down of the situation:
Pliny says: ‘In this climate the waves of the ocean invade a vast area twice each day and night. It makes you wonder… does this region belong to the land, or to the sea? You tell me!’
The Roman points at an area where there are no borders between sea and land and says: ‘This is where a wretched Germanic race lives. They either inhabit the more elevated spots of land, or they dwell on artificially constructed heights, called ‘terpen’ (mounds). They know by experience that the highest tides will never reach the tops of these mounds, and so that’s where they build their dwellings.’
‘Now imagine’, Pliny says, ‘these people on their “terps” surrounded by waves far and wide: like sailors on a ship in a vast ocean. And when the tide recedes, they are like shipwrecked sailors hunting the fishes as they make their escape with the receding tide.’
Pliny is laughing at this picture and then he smirks: ‘Unlike neighbouring tribes they cannot keep cattle for milk and because there are no shrubs they cannot fight with wild beasts. With the sedge and the rushes of the marsh they make ropes, which they use to weave the nets for catching fish. With their hands they collect mud which is then dried by wind rather than by sun. This peat is used to cook food, and to warm their bodies frozen by the icy north wind. Their only drink is rainwater, which they collect in holes dug at the entrance of their dwellings.’
The old Roman scholar is frowning and the expression on his face changes from pity to stern pride: ‘Ha, and yet these people will speak of slavery if they were conquered by the Roman people today! But that’s the way it goes: fate will leave many alive so that they can be punished!’
Thus spake haughty Pliny. We walk back to our time machine feeling pity for these poor barbarians in their cold and clammy territory which is neither land nor sea. We realize that what we just heard is a Roman’s arrogant observation. The opinion of a colonial conqueror. We know that these Germanic tribes are the ancestors of generations of flatlanders who have learned to make a pact with the seething sea and the wild rivers. Over two thousand years they managed to create a wealthy nation by reclaiming land from the sea and controlling the forces of water.
In Pliny’s time a WAD or a TRECHT was still a spot where you could wade to the other side of the stream. These places attracted people and so that’s where villages and towns were born. Hence Wadenoyen and Utrecht. Nowadays we still use the verb WADEN (wade). In the Middle Ages the word WAD was applied to the flat of mud itself. So the meaning became ‘mudflat’. We even have a word for the area that Pliny could not name and it is ‘Waddenzee’ (Wadden Sea).
Around 1480, so almost a millennium and a half after Tacitus and Pliny lived, the Dutch had the following expression. See if you can read Middle Dutch: ‘Wye ghecomen si int wat, hy pijnt hem voort, al wort hi nat’ (Who has come into the mudflat, he plods on, even if he gets wet). And that characterizes the Dutch spirit. WAD is at the heart of our national character. Wade on!
Pliny’s text is a free rendition of Pliny the Elder, ‘The Natural History’, John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S., H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A., Ed. (more information here)
Photo from: Ruud Hisgen and Remi Laane, Geheimen van de kust, Van Zwin tot Marsdiep, Diemen, 2009