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Word of the day: voorzichtig (careful)

‘Voorzichtig zijn is ook een risico.’ What the hell? Being careful, a risk? You must be kidding! I stumbled upon this giant appeal in the middle of a street near our institute. An ad wants you to spend money on something, but what is the commodity? Is it an insurance policy? Literally this sign means: ‘Being careful is also a risk.’ Really? What a ridiculous paradox.

voorzichtigI immediately googled this shifty text and came across an interview with a Mr Ivar Roeleven, manager of ING Investment Trust for Europe. In an interview this young banker shows himself elated that the Dutch ‘really feel like investing in stocks and shares again’. (‘Ze hebben er zin in!’) Over the last few years the Dutch have been ‘voorzichtig’ (cautious) investers because they chose to save their money riskfree in a bank at a low interest rate. But now, so Roeleven says, they have seen the light again and realise that low interest rates and inflation produce a negative return on their saving deposits. ‘Te voorzichtig zijn is ook een risico’ (Being too careful is a risk as well). Note that the publicity manager who used Roeleven’s quote for the ad skilfully deleted the word ‘te’ (too) in front of VOORZICHTIG (careful).

It is true that the Dutch have a reputation for being frugal and sparing. The word for ‘save’ is ‘sparen’. The Dutch, who have lived with a freakish sea and with capricious rivers for centuries, mistrust ‘risks’ because they experienced dangerous floods far too often. VOORZICHTIG is not a word that characterizes the faint-hearted or small-minded. The Lowlanders are VOORZICHTIG by nature and by necessity. VOORZICHTIG was also Spinoza’s motto for life. The famous Dutch philosopher with his revolutionary ideas had the Greek word ‘caute’ (=cautious) on his signet ring. It reminded him that freedom only has a chance if you use your intelligence and foresight.

VOORZICHTIG is a wonderful word. Its three syllables sound great and its letters look like a miniature poem: vooooooor-zichhhhhh-tig! Take care. The core of the word is the noun ZICHT (a ‘het’- word). The ancient word ZICHT means ‘sight’, the capacity to see. Originally VOORZICHTIG had to do with ‘vooruitzien’ (to look forward). In English it is matched by the noun ‘foresight’ (care or provision for the future). In the sixteenth century the Dutch used VOORZICHTIG as a synonym of ‘behoedzaam’ (cautious and circumspect).

Be on your guard, use your eyes and be attentive, for something bad could come your way: VOORZICHTIG.

Near the Blaak station in Rotterdam there is a large building of an insurance company and on top of it is written in large neon letters: ‘Alles van waarde is weerloos‘. In English it could mean: ‘All things of value are defenceless’. It is a well known line in the Netherlands and people like to quote it whenever they talk about something that is valuable.

Few people realize that the line is from a wonderful poem by the great Dutch poet and Cobra painter Lucebert (1924-1994). Today, Thursday 30 January 2014, twenty years after Lucebert’s death, is the national Gedichtendag (Poetry Day) and this futile fact legitimizes a rendition of the poem and its translation that I made especially for you.

De zeer oude zingt

er is niet meer bij weinig
noch is er minder
nog is onzeker wat er was
wat wordt wordt willoos
eerst als het is is het ernst
het herinnert zich heilloos
en blijft ijlings

alles van waarde is weerloos
wordt van aanraakbaarheid rijk
en aan alles gelijk

als het hart van de tijd
als het hart van de tijd

The very old one sings

there is not more to little
nor is there less
it is still doubtful what there was
what will be will have no will
only when it is it will be grave
it fatally remembers
and instantly remains

all that matters is defenceless
will be rich from being touchable
and will equal everything

like the heart of time
like the heart of time

(© translation: Ruud Hisgen 2014)