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Word of the day: pensioen (pension)

Yesterday my friend Arno went into retirement: ‘hij is met pensioen gegaan’. Literally: ‘he has gone on pension’. It sounds a bit like: ‘hij gaat met vakantie’ (he goes on holidays). Not so weird, for PENSIOEN is a ‘het-woord’ and a long, a really, really long, long, super long vacation.

I met Arno 25 years ago, and since that meeting we have worked together conceiving and developing educational exhibitions, museums and books. We are ‘partners in crime’ as his boss in the educational museum Museon called us in his farewell speech at the farewell ceremony yesterday). Ours has been a close and intense cooperation for such a long time that it is difficult for me to imagine what this word PENSIOEN will mean for our future working relationship.

In contrast to Arno who was on the payroll of the Museon, I have always been self-employed, so PENSIOEN never received a fixed place in my frame of mind. Thinking of Arno’s carefree future I admit that I feel slightly jealous, especially when I ponder the word PENSIOEN in connection with ‘vakantie’.

However, when I continue to reflect on what such a long vacant time entails, anxiety surges up. No one expects a GEPENSIONEERDE (pensioner) to come to work, to do your job, to confer on job-related matters, to go home, to think about your career, to plan holidays, to ….

Allegedly PENSIOEN means freedom. But freedom at what cost. Free of what? Work is part of my identity. ‘I work therefore I am’ sounds reasonable to me. Work gives sense to my existence. ‘I am retired therefore I am…’ sounds ridiculous. From one day to the next work will suddenly turn into some hobby. No strings attached. Free of obligations. Fun. What a gloomy word, fun!

Anyway, enough of this doom and gloomy brooding. Arno was put to pasture. In Dutch: ‘hij geniet pensioen’. Weird word once again: ‘genieten’. It means ‘to enjoy’. So he is enjoying his pension.

PENSIOEN is an income for a person who does not work anymore because he or she is at an advanced age or because he or she is disabled. PENSIOEN and English ‘pension’ share the same Latin origin. The Latin verb ‘pendere’ with its accompanying ‘pensio’ means ‘to weigh’ and also ‘to pay’. In Middle Dutch the noun ‘pensie’ meant ‘payment’ or ‘allowance’. The French meaning of ‘yearly payment’ (usually for widows) was used by the Dutch in the 17th century.

According to my favourite etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs in her chronological dictionary (2001) and in the Etymologiebank, the sense of ‘provision for old age’ entered our language when the French occupied the Netherlands around the turn of the 18th century. Their relatively short stay in the Netherlands had a great impact on the Dutch political and parliamentary system.

PENSIOEN and its sister or brother PENSION (the latter meaning ‘boarding house’) have been part and parcel of the Dutch language thanks to the French government when they ruled the Netherlands at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Dutch pension scheme is said to be the best in the world and the highest in Europe.

Arno can enjoy his rest but I am sure that he won’t be able to sit still. It is not in his nature. So I look forward to a new kind of cooperation, and in the meantime I wish Arno and his wife a happy long long long time of vacated work obligations.