Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the day: diplomaat (diplomat)

Easy word to translate, for it’s more or less the same word in German, French, English and hundreds of other languages. Easy subject… So why pick this word as word of the day? 


Well, I’ve chosen DIPLOMAAT because it gives me a reason to point you to the weekly blog Woordspot produced by Dutch language organisation Onze Taal (Our language). And to show you that some diplomats aren’t boring at all.

Woordspot’s most recent posting is all about the word DIPLOMAAT. It’s excellent study material for students of Dutch. The webpage ‘woordspot’ has this subtitle: ‘Elke week uitleg van Onze Taal bij een lastig maar nuttig Nederlands woord.’ (Each week explanation of a tricky but useful Dutch word by ‘Onze Taal’. If you want to know what ‘Onze Taal’ is look here. If you have a question about the Dutch language, it’s here you’ll find the answer. Take a free subscription to the educational site ‘woordspot’ if you want to broaden your vocabulary.

Let’s have a look at the first paragraph of their explanation and see if you catch its meaning.

‘De afgelopen dagen ging het in het nieuws vaak over de Russische diplomaat Dmitri Borodin: “Arrestatie Russische diplomaat ontaardt in rel”, “Diplomaat Borodin tevreden met Nederlandse excuses”. Dat Borodin een Rus is, is duidelijk. Maar wat is precies een diplomaat? “Diplomaat” betekent: “iemand die namens de regering van zijn land in het buitenland werkt”’

(In the last few days the news often was about the Russian diplomat Dmitri Borodin: ‘Arrest Russian diplomat deteriorating in scandal’, ‘Diplomat Borodin satisfied with Dutch apologies’. That Borodin is a Russian, is evident. But what exactly is a diplomat? ‘Diplomat means: someone who works abroad on behalf of the government of his country.)

So far Onze Taal’s ‘Woordspot’. Back to our Direct Dutch posting.

Let’s start with the word DIPLOMAAT itself. It is a relatively young word according to etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs. The words DIPLOMAAT and ‘diplomatie’ came into the Dutch language via French at the beginning of the 19th century. The English started using ‘diplomatic’ and ‘diplomat’ a little earlier at the end of the 18th century. The words clearly reflect a new enlightened era expressing: let’s open negotations, let’s not make war.

You cannot be a DIPLOMAAT unless you possess a ‘diploma’, which is an official document or license certifying that you are authorized to represent a particular nation. The word ’diploma’ stems from Greek ‘diploun’ which means ‘to double’ or ‘to fold over’. So a ‘diploma’ was a document folded double. The word ‘double’ or in Dutch ‘dubbel’ is clearly related to this Greek word.

In the world of a DIPLOMAAT everything seems double. There are two countries involved. A diplomat can be male or female but to keep things simple I’ll use ‘he’. A DIPLOMAAT has two minds that could easily be in conflict. He has his own ideas which he usually cannot air. And he’s got a mind that speaks for the government that he represents. Thus the character of a DIPLOMAAT can be seen as having a certain amount of double-facedness or ambidexterity.

orwellIn the 19th century the word DIPLOMAAT could also imply the unfavourable meaning of ‘duplicity’ both in England and in the Netherlands. In George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ such a hypocritical attitude was called ‘doublethink’. A DIPLOMAAT was said to have contradictory and conflicting beliefs in his mind.

Today’s DIPLOMATEN have a much more favourable reputation than their notorious predecessors. Because they created an important function in the world of international affairs, they are usually privileged and diplomatically immune. On the surface a DIPLOMAAT may look uninteresting but behind his mask, we know, is a complex world of conflicting interests and international knots that need to be untangled.

Since the 17th century The Hague has always been full of ambassadors and other diplomats. Some of them were artists. Not many but still.

The diplomat that fascinates me most of all is the English novelist Matthew Lewis (1775-1818). He is often referred to as ‘Monk’ Lewis, because of the success of his classic Gothic novel, ‘The Monk’ (1796).

When he was nineteen he became an attaché to the British embassy in Den Haag (The Hague) where he worked from May till December 1794. He hated The Hague and found it extremely boring. To kill time he wrote the horrific gothic novel ‘Ambrosio, or The Monk’ in ten weeks. It tells the story of a well-respected Capucin monk and his downfall in Spain. Because he was an aristocrat and diplomat, Lewis published it anonymously in the summer of 1795. It instantly made him famous and the novel received praise from other authors ranging from Lord Byron to the marquis De Sade. Whether you like the novel or not, the book is still in print and as recently as 2011 the story was made into a French-Spanish thriller directed by Dominik Moll.

In later postings I will tell you about other DIPLOMATEN who managed to combine their role as representative of a nation with an artistic career and prove to you that a DIPLOMAAT is anything but boring