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Word of the Day: grap (joke)

The best Belgian joke ever is the following: ‘Er zijn in principe drie soorten mensen in de wereld. Zij die kunnen tellen en zij die dat niet kunnen.’ (There are basically three kinds of people in the world. Those who can count and those who can’t.) 


The best Dutch joke is long and tedious and the best English joke is a gruesome tragedy about two hunters. In the runner-up to the best English joke, Sherlock Holmes and Watson go camping and, because Watson loses himself in waffle about the universe, they do not notice the theft of their tent. This joke is so absolutely not funny that I will not repeat it here. Interested? Look here….

Don’t you agree that most jokes are just not funny? GRAPPEN, GROLLEN, MOPPEN (jokes, jests and gags)… I am allergic to those indigestible morsels of oral literature. Yet, I must admit that they can be beneficial to you, students of Dutch, because you can enlarge your vocabulary by listening and at the same time practice your fluency by telling them. So have a few jokes handy, dear expats, when you go to a Dutch party.

By the way. Do you know what a Dutch party is? You bring your own bottle, you bring your own food and you laugh at your own jokes… (I made this joke up myself. Question: does it count as a true Dutch joke? Or is it too feeble?)

Jokes are usually born in heated moments of verbal intercourse. They have a short gestation and an even shorter life. Only few manage to survive. Jokes are but a step away from gossip and the lowest of our desires and passions. They are meant to make the teller feel as if he is the master of the cosmos and she its mistress. Listeners become temporary members of a small elect sect. And imagine themselves very superior for a while.

The word GRAP is not a very old word. It was first written down in the height of the enlightenment in the middle of the seventeenth century according to Ms Nicoline van der Sijs (as you know by now, my favourite etymologist). GRAP must have something to do with the Middle Dutch verb ‘grapen’, meaning ‘grijpen’ (to catch). The English ask ‘did you catch the joke?’ And they think some stories are ‘catchy’. The Dutch verb for ‘understand’ BEGRIJPEN also has GRIJPEN (catch) in it. GRAPPIG, however, means funny.

Some artists put their hand to jokes. The jokiest book ever is probably also the most unreadable book. I am talking about James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Almost every word is a pun and each sentence has several layers of meaning. I am convinced that Joyce intended this novel as one huge practical joke. And whatever you may think of it, the joke did work. Thousands of academics and other Joyceans spend much of their waking lives trying to decipher the text as if it contains hidden messages. In its entirety the novel has scared off lots of readers, but if you take it in morsels it has a mesmerising and sometimes humorous effect. Take for example this section about the Irish river Liffey which is portrayed as a beautiful woman named Anna Livia Plurabelle. There are two Dublin washerwomen, each on one of the riverbanks, who gossip about her and the man in her life. It starts off as follows:

‘O tell me all about Anna Livia! I want to hear all about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia? Yes, of course, we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now. You’ll die when you hear.’

And later one of them says: ‘Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a taling and that’s the he and the she of it. ‘

Every story, however sordid and exciting, has an ending and that’s all there is to it. That’s all there is to jokes. There is a rare recording of Joyce reading from the Anna Livia Plurabelle section in Finnegans Wake. You can listen to it here. Very moving.

When I cycled along the parade of sculptures in the Grote Marktstraat in The Hague, one of them struck me immediately as painfully funny (see photo). It is a joke about the entangled relationship a man and a woman can end up in. A joke about endless misunderstandings between the sexes. The bizarre forces of attraction and repulsion. The sculpture was made by the artist Gijs Assmann (1966) in 2005. I think it is a joke in the sense that ‘Finnegans Wake’ is a joke. Can you guess what the sculpture’s title is? Man and woman in a knot? The he and the she of it? Wrong!

The title is: ‘The he and the she and the is of it’. Assman extended Joyce’s joke by adding ‘the is’ (whatever that means). Funny? Every joke has its punchline. Every telling has a taling. So the story goes.