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Word of the day: gemeen (mean, nasty)

Yesterday Jet pointed out that there is a nasty side to GEMEEN (common). When my computer bleeped to alert me to Jet’s comment, I was just reading a blog by my old friend the biologist Arno. He usually discusses wildlife and the not so wild life in and around his house. Nature is his business. Besides being a great photographer, he tells stories that are for education and enjoyment (ter lering en vermaak). 


In his latest posting Arno tells the story of two mice looking for shelter when the GEMEENTE (municipality) Zoetermeer decided to clean up the little park in front of his house. The two wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus) fell into the paws of the two cats (Felis catus) that shared their luxury lives with the two senior humans (Homo sapiens tiletarnonensis) of the suburban house in Zoetermeer (Sweet Lake City)

Later I’ll you more about the fate of these homeless little mice. For now, I’ll focus on the word GEMEEN (mean or nasty). Many people will call the actions of the two cats GEMEEN and vicious but those who are biologists or merely enlightened ones will abstain from these rash judgments saying: ‘No, it won’t do to call cats mean and vicious; their actions are the result of natural instinct’.

True, of course, as my favourite philosopher Baruch Spinoza, pointed out over three centuries ago: nature is the equivalent of what some call god (Deus sive Natura” -> God or Nature) and therefore there is no good or evil in nature. Only humans with their passionately rational properties can discern these values. Cats and all other beasties are morally as indifferent as the tree or the volcano or the ocean. No cruelty there! It’s all in the mind of human beholders.

Back to GEMEEN (mean). In yesterday’s posting I discussed GEMENEBEST which means commonwealth. According to my favourite etymologist Nicoline van der Sijs in her chronological dictionary GEMEEN – in the sense of ‘common’ or ‘communal’ – first appeared in Dutch writing in the tenth century.

Anyway, as you can see, GEMEEN and ‘mean’ are close relatives.They go back to early Germanic times when the word ‘meen’ or ‘mene’ must have meant something like ‘common possession’ or ‘possessed jointly’ (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, my favourite dictio… I know… right).

The Latin word ‘commūnis’ (which entered the English language as ‘common’) has a similar meaning: ‘com’ (together) and ‘mūnis’ (bound). ‘Het gemene volk’ meant and still means ‘the common people’. GEMEEN in this sense has found its place in all kinds of words (algemeen, in het gemeen -> in general, gemeenschappelijk -> communal, gemeente -> municipality, gemenebest -> commonwealth etc.).

In time English ‘mean’, Dutch GEMEEN and German ‘gemein’ acquired the general senses of ‘ordinary’ and later ‘not exceptionally good’ or even ‘inferior’. In the eighteenth century the Dutch word GEMEEN assumed negative meanings like: nasty, mean, vicious, malicious, low and vile. ‘Een gemene streek’ is ‘a mean or dirty trick’. ‘Gemeen spel’ is ‘foul play’.

And ‘een gemene kat’ is a vicious cat… Oh no, there is no such thing as a vicious animal.
So back to Arno’s wonderful ‘cat and mouse story’. Here it is in an abridged version. You’ll find my English translation underneath.

gemeen 2

‘Een van de muizen is direct opgegeten, maar de andere ontsnapte en vestigde zich in de keuken onder het aanrecht. Daar hoorden wij hem een paar weken scharrelen. De katten bleven er ‘s nachts voor op en posteerden zich bij de afwasmachine. Zo’n twee weken was er een patstelling. De muis liet zich niet vangen. Tot gisteren. Plotseling was er veel kabaal. De siamees liep met een muis door het huis, liet hem los en begon het wrede spel dat steevast eindigt met een kleine maaltijd. Muizen verdedigen zich tegen katten. Deze probeerde de kat in de lippen en de neus te bijten. En sprong daar zelfs naartoe. Voor deze muis liep het goed af. Ik ving hem met een vangnet en liet hem verderop in het plantsoen los. En nu maar hopen, dat hij niet terugloopt naar ons huis waar ie al aardig gewend was.

(One of the mice was eaten straight away, but the other one escaped and took up its abode in the kitchen below the sink. There we heard it rummaging around for several weeks. At night the cats stayed up and posted there near the dishwasher. For a couple of weeks the situation was stalemated. The mouse did not allow itself to be caught. Until yesterday. Suddenly there was a lot of noise. The Siamese walked through the house with a mouse, let it loose and began the cruel game which will invariably end in a snack. Mice defend themselves against cats. This one tried to bite the cat in its lips. And it even jumped up to them. For this mouse the story ended well. I caught it with a net and let it loose down in the little park. And we are now hoping that it will not go back to our house where it had settled down quite nicely.)

Cat and Mouse story and photo: Arno van Berge Henegouwen © 2014)
Translation: Ruud Hisgen