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Word of the day: oorlog (war)

‘War is over, if you want it, war is over now’, sang John Lennon together with Yoko Ono in 1971 at the end of the gruesome and senseless war in Vietnam (1955-1975).


Thanks to this Christmas song the Dutch could almost imagine the nearness of world peace. This song was the offspring of John and Yoko’s honeymoon in Amsterdam, in their spectacular Bed-Ins for Peace in Room 902 (the Hilton presidential suite). In the same year John had us all singing in unison: ‘Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people living life in peace’.

‘Imagine’ is my friend Remi’s favourite song. Because he was born during the post–World War II baby booming period between the years 1946 and 1950, the Dutch labelled him as a baby boomer. When he was a student in Groningen in the late sixties and early seventies he and many other Dutch baby boomers imagined themselves to be dreamers, but they were not the only ones…

In the late seventies John’s dream was over and a younger generation started having punk nightmares instead of the hippy world peace dream of the Beatles and the baby boomers. In 1980, just a few weeks before Christmas, the forty year old ex-Beatle was murdered in New York.

On the flip side of the ‘Imagine’ record John had warned us: ‘But it’s so hard, it’s really hard / Sometimes I feel like going down’. And down we earthlings went from war to war, worse and worst. Forty years of bloody fights and slaughters up to this August day and the terribly gory events in Egypt.

OORLOG (war) is quite a unique word. Apparently the Danes or the Swedes apply it to a war at sea, but otherwise the only modern language with the word OORLOG is Dutch. The Germans and the Scandinavian languages have a form of ‘Krieg’, which is old fashioned Dutch ‘krijg’.

Don’t jump to conclusions… ‘Krieg’ and ‘krijg’ have nothing to do with the verb KRIJGEN (to get). They go back to the word krēg which means ‘stubbornness’.

‘Krieg’ suggests that the Germans saw ‘war’ as the result of two parties acting in a stubborn way. The English and French words for ‘war’ suggest a period of chaos and confusion.

The Dutch with their unique and stately word OORLOG have a different story to tell. To the Dutch war appears to be a matter of fate. Something that cannot be helped, something that you have to undergo. Stick to agreements. If not… OORLOG…. Shit, it always happens when you break an oath!

Etymologists have two vague overlapping theories about the origins of the word OORLOG. The first theory traces the word back to Proto-Germanic ‘uzlagą’ which means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ (Dutch: noodlot). Before the English lost this word, Old English knew it as ‘orlæg’ which is a combination of ‘or’ (now: ‘oer’, ‘original’) and ‘læg’ (now: ‘law’, ‘lay’, in Dutch: ‘leggen’). So: the law that was laid out in the beginning.

In the second theory the etymologists focus on the fight and trace the word back to Proto-Germanic ‘uz’ (out) and ‘liug’ (oath). In this interpretation OORLOG means the ‘annulment of legal agreements’. In Old Norse the words ‘ørlög’ (fate) and ‘ørlygi’ (fight, battle) coexisted in medieval times, but only in Dutch the beautiful word of terror OORLOG has survived.

OORLOG and ‘war’ are both words that echo the sounds of the fight and the battle. War, war, thumping sounds on the tympanum. OORLOG appealing to an intuitive sense of piercing aggression.

‘OORLOG is voorbij, als je dat wilt, OORLOG is nu voorbij’ or ‘Krieg ist vorbei, wenn du das willst, Krieg ist jetzt vorbei’, is not what John Lennon and Yoko Ono were singing. The original line: ‘War is over, if you want it, war is over now’ is so much more effective, even though it never changed the world. All we can do is ‘imagine all the people living life in peace’. Dream on! Let’s dream on!