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Word of the day: been (leg, bone)

‘How many legs does a human have?’ asked Mrs Wasp in Godfried Bomans’ story ‘Erik of het klein insectenboek’ (Eric in the Land of the Insects) which I discussed in my previous posting. Erik answered: ‘Normally two but if they come back from the war, they only have one.’ In the land of the insects two legs is a strange phenomenon and so Eric has to work very hard to show that he does not belong to an inferior species.

Having but two legs is an anomaly among insects and mammals. Our species has not always walked on two legs. A mere six million years ago, all primates moved on using four legs. Why we evolved to two-leggedness is still a mystery. Primates are much better off, moving around on four legs. Monkeys have no back aches or other spinal problems like many humans do.

BEEN (leg or bone) is a ‘het-woord’, don’t you forget it! As far as we know, the word BEEN has always had the double meanings of ‘leg’ and ‘bone’. The Dutch also use the word ‘bot’ (a ‘het-woord’) when they refer to a ‘bone’. BEEN in the sense of ‘bone’ has the plural ‘beenderen’ whereas BEEN in the sense of ‘leg’ has the plural ‘benen’ . In the Middle Ages the plural of BEEN (leg) was BEEN. And we still find this usage in the expression ‘hij is op de been’ (he is back on his feet).

A BEEN (in the sense of leg) speaks to the imagination. Usually a man’s imagination. A female NAAKT BEEN (nude leg) can set a man aflame. Some men get aroused by other softer body parts, but I suspect that Godfried Bomans had something of a fetish for legs.

When you are at a party or reception and you’re running out of subjects for conversation, look your Dutch counterpart in the eye and estimate his or her age. If he or she is over sixty years of age, casually mention the name Godfried Bomans and ask him or her to tell you the story of Bomans and Marlene Dietrich’s leg: ‘Het BEEN van Marlene Dietrich’.

In the sixties Godfried Bomans was one of the first television celebrities in the Netherlands. In those days television only had one channel, so there was not much of a choice. People admired Bomans for his witty remarks in quizzes and talk shows. He always pretended that these witticisms occurred to him on the spur of the moment. After his death we learned that he carefully prepared them at home in the quietude of his study while smoking a pipe.

His celebrityhood must be the reason why so many people remember him as the funny stand-up comedian rather than the serious thinker who wrote essays on Dickens and reflections on life and religion in the Netherlands. His clownish mask proved to be his downfall. Whenever he appeared people expected to be entertained.

I suspect that this is the reason why critics had such sour reactions to the new publication of ‘Eric’, the promoted book in the ‘Nederland Leest’-campaign. They probably expected a text with twenty funny jokes per page instead of a modern day Lewis Carroll or Dickens who had seriously witty things to say about human existence.

Fifty years ago, October 1963, all those Dutch who owned a television stayed up late and watched Godfried Bomans in between the four frames of the electronic screen. He was the star of the Grand Gala du Disque and had the honour to award other celebrities special prizes. The last but not the least of these artists was actress and singer Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). It was all live of course.

It was very late when the Dutch looked forward to the encounter between the pipe smoking gentleman and the sexy ex-German, American singer whose Lily Marleen had made her famous when she was singing it to allied soldiers during the Second World War. Just before Bomans awarded the little golden statue which was the prize he told the audience the following naughty anecdote:

‘Ik zat eens in de bioscoop en daar werd een film van Marlene Dietrich vertoond. Ik genoot natuurlijk en naast mij zat een heel oud mannetje ook te zuchten van verrukking. Opeens stootte die man me aan in het donker, dat is werkelijk gebeurd, en hij zei uit de grond van zijn hart: Had mijn vrouw maar een zo’n been.’
(One day I was in the cinema which showed one of Marlene Dietrich’s films. Of course I was enjoying it and next to me there was a very old little man who was also sighing in ecstasy. Suddenly this man nudged me in the dark – this really happened – and he said from the bottom of his heart: If only my wife had just one leg like that.)

You should really watch Bomans’ performance in this youtube clip and have a little patience because at the end Marlene Dietrich will sing Pete Seeger’s anti-war song ‘Where have all the flowers gone’. Very movingly.

Marlene Dietrich unwittingly echoes Erik’s answer to the wasp’s question: ‘How many legs does a human have?’
‘Normally two but if they come back from the war, they only have one.’ Where have all the soldiers gone?