In his article in the internet magazine DutchReview of 23rd November 2013 ‘How to speak Dutch in seven words or less’ Amsterdam based Henry Stokes wrote about those cute little words that can be heard in any Dutch conversation:
Each word deserves a posting of its own and I’ll surely (ZEKER) return to these minute almost meaningless and yet so significant words. Today I’ll concentrate on LEUK (nice). Stokes says: ‘The term can be applied to everything from the mundane and normal through to the amazing and incredible. Obviously though, it should not be used for things that are bad events. It would be poor form to reply with ‘leuk man’ after someone tells you they had to go to a funeral on the weekend.’
For English speaking people the /eu/ sound may present a problem. Try the long /ee/ sound and round your lips slightly at the same time. Think of French ‘fleur’ or ‘beurre’ and German ‘schön’. But forget Elvis Presley’s voice ‘Bei mir bist du schön…’ because his pronunciation is abominable.
While trying to pronounce LEUK, you’re probably reminded of the English name ‘Luke’ or ‘luke’ as part of ‘lukewarm’. Well, you’re not very far off the mark there, because LEUK and ‘luke’ are related. In the Middle Ages ‘leuk’ meant ‘tepid’ both in Middle English, in Middle Dutch and in Old Frisian. An earlier form can be found in Old English ‘hleowe’ which means ‘warm’ and which has survived in Modern Dutch ‘lauw’ (another word for ‘tepid’).
So originally LEUK did not mean ‘nice’ at all, but ‘lukewarm’ or ‘half warm’ or ‘tepid’. Nicoline van der Sijs in her chronological dictionary has 1898 as the year when this word was first recorded in its modern meaning. Earlier it must have meant ‘calm’ or ‘serene’. This meaning can still be found in the expression ‘doodleuk’ (coolly, blandly or as cool as you please).
So how did this word evolve from ‘lukewarm’ via ‘calm’ to ‘nice’? The Dutch Etymological Dictionary suggests that it must have been concocted by students in the 19th century. In the same way that the English words ‘cool’ or ‘chill’ must have come into being.
So, whenever you say LEUK (and don’t confuse it with LEKKER which is ‘tasty’), remember that it is a word with a long and respectable history.