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Word of the day; gevaar (danger)

On my way from my fitness centre in Ypenburg I usually cycle past Old Voorburg and the stately country house in the photo. It is situated on the canal De Vliet and carries the weird legend: ‘In de Wereldt is veel Gevaer’ (in the world is much danger). It is written in the old spelling. In today’s spelling it would be: ‘In de wereld is veel gevaar’. 


There is much danger in the world, indeed. It’s a miracle to be alive, isn’t it? After all, living a life is a dangerous and extremely mortal affair. ‘Een ongeluk zit in een klein hoekje’ (literally: ‘an accident sits in a small corner’: accidents will happen).

For so many centuries the Dutch have been living with threats of great danger (floods from the sea and the rivers, invasions from power hungry nations), that being wary of danger has become a second nature. The caution of the accident hiding in ‘het kleine hoekje’ is shared only with the Germans who say that ‘das Unglück lauert in jedem Winkel’ (the accident lurks in each corner).

There are millions of ‘kleine gevaarlijke hoekjes’ (small dangerous corners) and the Dutch ‘lopen altijd GEVAAR’ (they’re always running risks). By the way, students of Dutch know that the noun is ‘het’, because all words starting with ‘ge’ plus one syllable are ‘het-words’: ‘geloof’ (faith), ‘gebouw’ (building), ‘gezin’ (family), etc.).

The Dutch nation wards off ‘het grote gevaar’ (great danger) with a powerful good-luck charm: the royal coat of arms. It depicts a crowned lion with a long red tongue and sharp claws brandishing its sword menacingly and roaring the device: ‘Ik zal handhaven’ (I shall maintain), or rather: ‘Je maintiendrai’ because William of Orange, the original father of this blazon and the fatherland, was not very good at Dutch. In the province of Zeeland the same valiant cat emerges from the sea, roaring: ‘Luctor et emergo’ (I struggle and come up).

The choice of the particular species of lion in both coats of arms, however, proved to be not so fortunate. The depicted animal is the Cape lion (‘Panthera leo melanochaitus’), a sorry African cat, that could not stand up to danger and has been extinct since 1865.

GEVAAR and English ‘fear’ are closely related as you may have guessed. In Old English ‘færan’ meant ‘to terrify’ and ‘to frighten’ and Middle Dutch ‘vaeren’ meant ‘to fear’. In Middle High German the word ‘gevare’ meant ‘evil tricks’, ‘deceit, ‘danger’ and ‘fear’. GEVAAR therefore is that what makes one fear. The meaning of this word has nothing to do with the verb VAREN (to sail) that I discussed in earlier postings.

The house with the legend ‘In de Wereldt is veel Gevaer’ (in the world is much danger) that I pass so often has an interesting history. Local historian Kees van der Leer has written about this building in which he occupies an apartment on the top floor. According to Kees the present building was constructed in 1793 on the site where an earlier house stood with the same name.

In the nineteenth century it was used as a boarding school and from 1911 on, it served as a ‘laundry with a steam engine’. In this period the building also housed a notorious magnetizer and a spiritualistic society.

Apparently many spirits were conjured up and the house gained the reputation of being a haunted house. These ghosts must have passed on to higher spheres, for since 1976 it has been in use as an apartment complex.

Every time I pass this wonderful house I wonder what Kees and the other residents think of these ghostly rumours and how they interpret the creaky sounds from the old staircase in the depths of night. At the same time I ponder in amusement about the old inscription ‘In de Wereldt is veel Gevaer’ (in the world there is much danger).

The person who invented the legend must have had a lot of humour. It is a pun. A serious witty game on words. Are you getting it? GEVAAR does not only mean ‘danger’, the noun can also refer to the verb VAREN (to sail).

In other words: there is a lot of shipping and sailing going on in the world. The canal De Vliet is proof of it. If you listen carefully, the house has a lesson to teach: ‘Watch out, passer-by, life is like this canal, boats will pass you by, accidents will happen, leave ghosts alone and seize the day.’

For more information about the house, click here.