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Word of the Day: war (confused)

Dear readers, ik ben in de war (I’m confused). All this week I’ve been in search of Dutch epic heroes. After a lot of reading and thinking I collected so much material that I could not disentangle all the different findings and strands that I followed anymore. I got stranded in ‘war’ (OORLOG)


Fortunately yesterday three of the students in our intensive beginners course, Nina, Inês and Amelia helped me to untie some of the knots that I’d gotten entangled in. Amelia is a linguist of the Romance languages and Nina and Inês are gifted designers. Inês has a wonderful blog in which she visualizes a new Dutch word every day and Nina’s blog about her experiences in the Netherlands is funny and interesting.

So I told them why I was a bit in the ‘war’ (in disarray) and why I had not been able to post new words since Sunday. The strands that I’ve followed so far have guided me to the Second World War and two heroic names: Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch spy and war hero Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema (1917-2007).

I’ve been reading Wilhelmina’s war speeches and Hazelhoff Roelfzema’s autobiography. I was surprised by the emotional effect both books had on me. And still have. How to continue my search from here? I asked (in Dutch of course, because it is a Dutch course).

Nina, Inês, Amelia and I discussed the various words that our various cultures have for ‘war’ and what this says about our various cultures: Swiss, Portuguese and English, and Dutch of course. For Nina war is ‘Krieg’ (German), for Inês it is ‘guerra’ (Portuguese), for Amelia it is ‘war’ (English) and for me it is OORLOG.

When the Dutch talk about DE OORLOG, they don’t mean the eighty year war against the Spanish which lasted from 1568-1648, nor do they mean all the wars against the English, nor the French invasion which lasted from 1795-1813, nor the First World War (1914-1918) because the Netherlands managed to remain neutral then, no they mean the Second World War when the Nazis or the MOFFEN took possession of our country from 1940 to 1945.

In this war the exiled Queen Wilhelmina was invisible. Yet her omnipotent presence was felt everywhere thanks to her strong voice which could be heard over the radio. Her speeches had an important emotional effect on the Dutch population.

Extremely unqueenly she called the invaders scoundrels (schurken) and sometimes even ‘moffen’ (krauts). Her diction was always outspokenly aristocratic. So it came as a great surprise when she broke her queenly register and used a vulgar word.

When the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, for instance, Wilhelmina was so angry that she summoned all ‘landgenoten’ (fellow countrymen and women) to fight the enemy to the best of their ability. Her venomous conclusion: ‘Wie op het juiste ogenblik handelt, slaat de nazi op de kop.’ (Who takes action at the right moment, hits the nazi on the noggin.’) The word KOP is normally used for animals, HOOFD for humans.

On 17th October 1942 Wilhelmina after a short illness broadcast her anger and sorrow and said that she felt ‘forced to pause awhile and commemorate those who had fallen as victims of the senseless thirst for blood of the krauts…the vile brute… Our cordial compassion goes out to all those who weep over these martyrs’. In her stately Dutch this sounds as follows: ‘als slachtoffers van de redeloze bloeddorst der moffen… de laaghartige wreedaard… Onze hartelijke deelneming gaat uit tot allen, die deze martelaren bewenen.’ There could not be a greater distance in register than the width between ‘bloeddorst der moffen’ (krauts) and ‘bewenen’ (lament).

The Dutch had been at peace for over a century. And the second world war was a chaotic and confusing period. Very confusing even for a Queen.

Did you know that the English word ‘war’ stems from the Old Saxon verb ‘werran’ which means ‘to confuse’? So people were brought into confusion when they were at ‘war’. Dutch still uses the noun WAR in the sense of confusion. And when a Dutchman says ‘ik ben in de war’, he does not mean he is in the war or at war, no he means that he is totally confused or perplexed. The related verb is ‘VERWARREN’.

Apparently war was extremely confusing in the earliest Middle Ages among Saxon speaking peoples. There was no common word for ‘war’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Old English had many poetic words but the usual word was ‘gewin’ (struggle, strife, a word related to win). Eventually they chose the word ‘werre’ meaning ‘armed conflict’ which became the common word in most of medieval Europe. In French it is ‘guerre’, in Spanish, Portuguese and Italian ‘guerra’. Apparently Romanic peoples chose this Germanic word because Latin ‘bellum’ was too close to Romanic ‘bella’ or ‘belle’ (beautiful) and if anything war is not beautiful. It is worse than horrible. In fact, the words ‘worse’ and ‘worst’ are also related to the Old Saxon word ‘werre’.

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion about ‘war’, ‘Krieg’ and ‘oorlog’. Thanks Nina, Inês and Amelia. Source of the photo of Wilhelmina (have you seen the fox?): ‘De Koningin sprak’, Ons Vrije Nederland, 1945.