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Word of the day: winter (winter)

Winter… What winter? This must be the mildest winter in years. People complain that there is no snow and no frost. There are no snowmen (sneeuwpoppen) to be seen and the skates (schaatsen) remain in the attic or in the cellar. I think it’s great, because I can continue my cycling without having to fear slip and fall accidents (glijpartijen).

winterThis week, 353 years ago, on Monday, 21 January 1661 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:
‘It is strange what weather we have had all this winter; no cold at all; but the ways are dusty, and the flies fly up and down, and the rose-bushes are full of leaves, such a time of the year as was never known in this world before here. This day many more of the Fifth Monarchy men were hanged.’

Well, our Dutch roads are certainly not dusty because of the rainfall, but gnats or little flies are swarming and I’ve seen many trees in precarious bloom. Across the years I tell my old friend Samuel: ‘Here too, no cold at all; such a time as was never known in this world. End of time still not nigh yet. Global warming yes. No more hangings but lots of fights, flights and aggression all over the world.

The year 1661 was a time as turbulent as now. In England Charles II had just ascended the throne. In 2014 the Dutch also have a fresh king. Who were the ‘Fifth Monarchy Men’? you ask. Well, it was a religious sect, which preached the imminent end of time and the coming of Christ’s’ kingdom on earth. Nothing new. In 2014 there still are lots of religious fanatics who believe the end is nigh.

What is WINTER? According to the Oxford English Dictionary it is the fourth and coldest season of the year. The oldest written record we have of the English word was said to be written down by the Anglo-Saxon King Ælfred the Great of Wessex (849-899) in about the year 888: ‘On sumera hit bið wearm, & on wintra ceald’ (In summer it is warm and in winter cold’).

The first Dutch WINTER was recorded in the year 1050 according to Nicoline van der Sijs’ Chronological Dictionary. The word is common in most Germanic languages and it goes back to the Indo-European base ‘wed-‘ found in ‘wet’, ‘water’ and ‘otter’.

So WINTER and wetness are related. Yet, my first association of winter is with frost and coldness. As in T.S. Eliot’s opening of his mystical poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927):

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.

Adriaan van der Weel and I translated this text thus in 2004:

‘Een koude komst viel ons ten deel,
Net de meest barre tijd van het jaar 
Voor een reis, en dan zo’n lange reis:
De wegen slecht en het weer guur,
Echt het holst van de winter.’
En de kamelen die, met hun gepijnigde poten onhandelbaar, 
Gingen liggen in de smeltende sneeuw.

The Hague poet Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) made the following translation:

‘Het was een koude tocht,
en de slechtste tijd van het jaar
voor een reis, voor zulk een verre reis.
De wegen modderig, het weer guur,
de winter op zijn strengst.’
De kamelen, die hun knieën ontvelden, hun hoeven bezeerden, werden onhandelbaar
en legden zich neer in de smeltende sneeuw.
(Read more)

The Belgian Dick Wursten made his translation in 2008:

‘’t Was me een kouwe bedoening
Net de slechtste tijd van ‘t jaar
voor een reis, en dan nog zo’n lange reis ook
de wegen zwaar, het weer guur,
in het putje van de winter.’
En de kamelen, hun vel in flarden, zere poten, koppig weerstrevend,
Gingen liggen in de smeltende sneeuw.
(Read more)

I really wonder which of the three translations you appreciate more. Let us know. I just heard Radio West weatherman saying that February will bring genuine winter weather to the Netherlands and that ‘we’ll have a cold coming of it’. He also quoted this ancient popular wisdom:

‘Als in januari de muggen zwermen, dan kun je in maart de oren wermen’. 
‘If in January the gnats are swarming, in March your ears will need warming.’
(translation: © Ruud Hisgen 2014)

Be prepared, the very dead of winter is nigh!