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Word of the day: fris (fresh)

Nina from Switzerland asked us the other day what the difference is between VERS en FRIS, because English, French and German each only have one word for these two words: ‘fresh’, ‘frais’ and ‘frisch’.


VERS and FRIS are family. The main meaning of VERS is ‘new’. ‘Vers vlees’ was cut from an animal that had just been slaughtered. ‘Verse haring’ was immediately taken ashore after the fish was caught. ‘Verse broodjes’ have come straight from the oven and are still hot and fragrant. ‘Vers fruit’ was brought in straight from the fruit growers. ‘Vers voedsel’ is so new that it does not show any sign of decay yet. The Dutch call a recent wound ‘een verse wond’. And ‘Een boek vers van de pers’ has come fresh off the press.

And let’s now look at VERS’s brother or sister FRIS… The main meanings of FRIS are ‘pure’, ‘lively’, ‘fit’ or ‘refreshing’. If you go for a walk along the beach ‘om een frisse neus te halen’, you get a breath of fresh air. ‘Een frisse bries’ is a breeze which could be rather cool or even chilly. If you intend to kiss the love of your life for the first time, make sure that you have ‘frisse adem’ and get rid of bad breath. Your kitchen, bathroom and toilet should always look FRIS (clean). After having done your fitness training, you’re looking forward to a ‘frisse douche’ (a refreshing shower) and a ‘fris glas FRIS’.

And so we arrive at the noun FRIS, which is short for ‘frisdrank’. In French it is a ‘rafraîchissement’ and in German ‘ein Erfrischungsgetränk’. Odd that the English, or rather the Americans, I presume, call something that is meant to be refreshing ‘soft’. Why are alcoholic drinks supposed to be ‘strong’ drinks anyway? Instead of reinforcing someone they have a benumbing effect. The Dutch, too, call jenever and other intoxicants ‘sterke dranken’. But in the Netherlands there is no such drink as a ‘zachte drank’. We have FRIS and ‘zoetwater’. ‘Zoetwater’, however, is not ‘zoet’ (sweet) at all, it is the Dutch word for ‘freshwater’ (which is not necessarily fresh). VERWARREND (confusing)!

This morning at my fitness centre ‘Sport Accent’ in Ypenburg Ariadne tortured us mildly for an excruciating hour. Because I had not slept very well, I was not feeling all that fit, but after Ariadne’s hour I was far from FRIS. Ferdy, however, came to the rescue with a hot glass of VERSE MUNTTHEE.

After this tea, lots of fresh water and the relaxation and the gossip in the sauna I am now feeling ‘fris als een hoentje’ (fresh as a daisy, fit as a fiddle). Strange expression… ‘Hoentje’ means ‘young hen’. I accept that daisies can be called fresh, but why one should compare one’s physical condition to the fitness of a youthful chicken or a ‘fiddle’ is beyond me.

VERS and FRIS both mean fresh, but which word came first in Dutch? In the early Middle Ages ‘frisk’ meant ‘new’ or ‘young’ and a ‘friskink’ was a young animal. In spoken language two consonants can very easily be transposed. This mutation is called metathesis. Middle Dutch ‘bernen’ (burn) turned into ‘branden’ and German ‘brennen’ while it remained ‘burn’ in English. In the same way ‘frisk’ must have turned into ‘vers’. In Old English the older form of ‘fersc’ evolved to ‘fresh’.

At the end of the Middle Ages Dutch FRIS was reintroduced, when it was imported from Germany where it was known as ‘vrisch’ and later ‘frisch’ (new, lively, cool, unfermented). The words FRIS and VERS were more or less synonymous in the days of Republican Netherlands. Later on the meanings of the words drifted apart.

As I am writing this, the famous hit song ‘Fresh’ of Cool and the Gang (from 1985) is continously and irritatingly playing in my head.

‘She’s fresh exciting / She’s so exciting to me / She’s fresh exciting / She’s so inviting to me yeah’. I try to imagine this excitingly fresh lady but to no avail. The word ‘fresh’ here cannot be translated into VERS or FRIS. Cool sings: ‘Miss frisky lady take me away’ and it is this line that gives the hidden meaning of the song away. Fresh here clearly has sexual overtones, or is my dirty mind running amok?

The word ‘frisky’ comes from Middle English ‘frisk’ (lively) which was derived from French ‘frisque’ (lively, brisk) which goes back to early Dutch, English and German ‘fresh’. So ‘frisky’ and ‘fresh’ are related in a strange circumspect way.

‘Fresh’ can also mean ‘impudent’ or ‘presumptuous’. This word, which was slang in the United States around 1850, probably came from German immigrants who mispronounced ‘frech’. ‘Frech’ means ‘insolent’ or ‘cheeky’. In Old English this word also existed as ‘frec’ meaning ‘greedy’ or ‘bold’. The Dutch will have a fresh ‘aha-erlebnis’ now because the word ‘vrek’ is still alive and kicking in Dutch. VREK means miser or Scrooge.

VERS and FRIS have a long and interesting history travelling though various European languages. And yet there is another meaning which was revealed to me this morning in the fitness centre by newcomer Gareth after I drunk my glass of VERSE MUNTTHEE. Gareth told me that in his native Yorkshire dialect ‘fresh’ can mean ‘slightly drunk’. How this relates to FRIS and VERS is a mystery to me. Have you any ideas?