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Word of the day: varen (sail)

Varen, varen over de baren, / Varen, varen over de zee. / Wie nog nooit gevaren heeft, / Weet niet hoe een zeeman leeft. Varen, varen over de baren, / Varen, varen over de zee. (Sailing, sailing across the billows / Sailing, sailing across the sea / Who has never sailed before / Knows not how a sailor lives.) 

Shantykoor Scheveningen

Both our colleagues Zsuzsa and Marloes (who has just returned from maternity leave; welcome back, Marloes!) know this popular nursery rhyme all too well.

Yesterday they told me that they often sing it to their children to make them go to sleep. When they sing this lullaby (I can almost hear them) in a low and melodious voice, they join an age-old tradition shared by thousands of fisherman’s and sailor’s wives.


In this Dutch song you can hear the rhythms of the heaving sea with faint echoes of feelings of loss, sadness and worry. ‘De zee geeft en de zee neemt’ (The sea gives and the sea takes) is not an idle saw but a cruel truth, experienced by millions of Dutch coast dwellers over several millennia.

Strange that VAREN does not really have an equivalent in English. Both the Dutch and the English have been rulers of the waves for many centuries. ‘Sailing’ in English, however, sounds so old fashioned because of the sails of the wooden yachts which have been replaced by engines for over a century now.

However, having said this, I must admit, that Dutch VAREN is equally strange. The origin of the word (Old Dutch and Old English ‘faran’) had nothing to do with moving forward across the billows. VAREN simply meant ‘to go’. In Middle Dutch ‘hoe hebbedi gevaren?’ meant ‘how did you fare?’. So Middle Dutch ‘varen up die see’ (travelling over sea) had the same meaning as today’s VAREN.

In Dutch the meaning of ‘go, travel, move’ has vanished except in several expressions (old yet still going strong): ‘de duivel is in hem gevaren’ (the devil has got into him); ‘een plan laten varen’ (abandon a plan); ‘alle hoop laten varen’ (give up all hope); ‘ergens wel bij varen’ (be the better for something); ‘laat me horen hoe je bent gevaren (tell me how you got on); ‘alle voorzichtigheid laten varen’
(fling all caution to the winds).

Many Dutch people think that the parting word ‘VAARWEL’ (goodbye) came into being among sailors and fishermen. Not so! It goes back to medieval landlubbers who extended this greeting or replaced it by an older form of ‘het ga je goed’ (fare thee well).

On second thoughts, it could be that prime minister Gerbrandy (who was nicknamed Cherry Brandy by Churchill) as mentioned in yesterday’s posting meant to say ‘hope you’re doing well’ when he said ‘goodbye’ to his British counterpart on first meeting him.

Anyway, someone who flung all caution to the winds, was the reckless daredevil, spy and pilot Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (1917-2007). Tomorrow I’ll continue this posting and tell you why ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ (Soldier of Orange) should have been called ‘Soldaten van Oranje’ (plural) and also what an Engelandvaarder is.