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Word of the day: grondwet (constitution)

Boring word, vital concept. Where would we be without DE GRONDWET? In chaos. At war. Thanks to the rights embedded in this ‘fundamental law’ we can be free. We can express our opinions freely, be who we want, believe what we want, learn what we want and go where we want. The Dutch Constitution is the oldest constitution after the American Constitution. Today the Dutch and especially The Hague celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Dutch Constitution. Today is a beautiful day to enjoy the Constitution Festival!


Today Saturday, 29 March 2014 it is exactly 200 years ago that the first Dutch constitution was signed. To celebrate this the city of The Hague organises all kinds of activities. The doors of more than 25 institutions in The Hague that are normally closed to the public, like those of the Catshuis (where last Monday’s G7 took place), the Trêveszaal (where the cabinet meets every Friday), the King’s Office etc will open for everyone. There will also be many free theatrical performances and debates. Visitors can follow the Constitution Trail, which connects all these Hague institutions.

The Festival starts at 10 am and closes at 5 pm. See you on the Plein or elsewhere in the city. For students of Dutch it is an excellent day to practise Dutch. Don’t forget to bring your button ‘Spreek Nederlands! Met mij!’. Remember this day of all days is an exemplary day to exercise this right.

What is a GRONDWET, a constitution exactly? The Oxford English Dictionary gives a very long and boring answer which I’ll try to summarise here.

A constitution is the body of fundamental principles according to which a nation is constituted and governed. A constitution can be embodied in successive concessions on the part of the sovereign power (as in the British Constitution), or it may be formally framed and adopted in one document (as in the Constitutions of the United States or the Netherlands). In either case it is assumed that the constitution is more fundamental than any particular law, and contains the principles with which all legislation must be in harmony.

The noun GRONDWET (in German ‘Grundgesetz’) is a combination of ‘grond’ (ground, foundation) and ‘wet’ (law). The English word ‘law’ goes back to Late Old English (c1000) ‘lagu’ which is related to an ancient word meaning ‘place’ and to an Old Icelandic word meaning ‘something laid or fixed’. The Latin word ‘lex’ which you can still find in ‘legal’ comes from the verb ‘legĕre’ which means ‘to gather’ or ‘to read’.

The Dutch word WET, which goes much deeper than ‘place’ or ‘gathering’, is related to the verb WETEN (know). Is not that a wonderful thing to know on this day that we celebrate the law of all laws, DE GRONDWET?

A WET is not just a boring dry system of rules and regulations, no a WET is something that we all know at heart. And the GRONDWET goes even further: it is the core of all we need to know in order to live together in harmony: we all know that we are all equal and free to express ourselves, our beliefs and opinions. The GRONDWET is a law dictated by the heart.