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Word of the day: herfst (autumn)

This blog was written in September 2013 by Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute)

Yesterday, Sunday, at 22:44 hours exactly this year’s autumn season made its start. When HERFST (or ‘najaar’), as the season is called in the Netherlands, began, I was walking through Terneuzen in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (southern Zeeland). It was a melancholy moment. 

The sun had set and in the distance the huge Ferris Wheel was being dismantled. The KERMIS (fair) was moving out of town. All Saturday and Sunday, when I was in town, the small city of Terneuzen had been taken over by the loud noises of the many fairground attractions which seemed to be everywhere.

Suddenly the fall had come around. Until the sixteenth century the season was called ‘harvest’ in England. An appropriate word because the end of summer is the time of year when crops are being gathered. It is a pity that the English replaced this beautiful word with ‘fall’ and the originally French word ‘autumpne’. Latin ‘autumnus’ or ‘auctumnus’ was probably derived from ‘auctus’ which means ‘increase’. It does not have the same wistful ring as ‘harvest’.

The Dutch word HERFST has been around for a millennium or even longer. The first recorded word is ‘heruistmanot’ (herfstmaand -> autumn month). The English word ‘harvest’ is ‘oogst’ in Dutch.

‘Oogst’ was derived from the month of August (in Dutch augustus, the eighth month of the year). And ‘august’ was borrowed from the Latin word ‘augustus’ (the honorary title of Roman emperors) meaning ‘sublime’.

August, of course, is traditionally the beginning of the ‘oogst’ and the harvest months. The original medieval Dutch name of August was not ‘augustus’ but ‘arenmaent’ which means ‘harvest month’. Dutch lost ‘aren’ in the course of time.

In German the word for harvest is still ‘Ernte’ which is clearly related to the Dutch word ‘aren’ and the English verb ‘to earn’. The Dutch still have the saying: ‘wie zaait zal oogsten’ (as you sow, so shall you reap).

It is a sobering fact of life that when you start to harvest what you sowed at a young age, your existence on this earth is drawing to an end. That’s what I clichéd when I watched the end of the fair in Terneuzen from the Scheldedijk.

In my mind’s ear I heard the coarse voice of the German singer Lotte Lenya singing the ‘September Song’. A song which she recorded when she was 59 in 1957. A song written by Walter Huston and composed by her husband Kurt Weill for the unsuccessful 1938 Broadway musical ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’ (a musical set in New Amsterdam in the sixteenth century).

Many other crooners have made this song famous. There are wonderful renditions by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Holiday and Eartha Kitt, but Lotte Lenya’s version remains my favourite.

So now that it is September: carpe diem (seize the day), let’s harvest, ‘laten we oogsten’ for there is no more time for ‘the waiting game’.

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you