Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the day: top (summit)

Why is ‘De Nucleaire TOP 2014’ called the ‘Nuclear Security Summit’ (NSS) in English and not ‘Nuclear Security TOP. And why is it ‘Gipfel’ in German? After all, most Germanic languages have retained the word ‘top’ since the early Middle Ages and what is more, they are still using it.


In origin the word ‘top’ meant the highest or uppermost part of something or someone. The first meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to the hair on the summit or crown of the head. The English word ‘crown’, by the way, is ‘kruin’. Interesting word for a later posting…

The TOP in Dutch, English, German etc was probably in origin the highest point of a tree. In the Middle Ages, after the Norman conquest in 1066, the French language invaded the Germanic English language in Britain and many French words overpowered English words.

‘Summit’ was such a word. It comes from French and Anglo-Norman ‘sumette’. It is in fact the diminutive of the word ‘som’ which is derived from Latin ‘summum’ (the highest). So ‘summit’ literally means ‘the little highest’ (or in Dutch ‘topje’).

The first time it was put in print was in 1485 when Caxton (the British Gutenberg) printed Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’.

French words were so much more ‘chic’ than English words and so it goes without saying that when rulers of the earth convene to their round table to discuss nuclear matters, they cannot call this event, commonplace TOP.

Such a royal and knightly round table conference sounds so much more lofty and elevated when it is called ‘summit’.

I like the word TOP, because, with its voiceless consonants, it looks and it sounds like the highest that one can reach. ‘Summit’ has two voiced ‘m’s embraced by two voiceless ‘t’s. It sounds as if the word cannot make up its mind whether it is going up or sliding down.

The NSS, which aims at preventing nuclear terrorism around the globe, is a truly noble conference of world leaders. Let’s hope that their debate in The Hague will end in the best of all possible results: less nuclear material in the world and a greater security of all nuclear material and radioactive sources.

The Dutch people would then all say: this Hague NSS was ‘toppie’. And by now you must have guessed its meaning. ‘Toppie’ does not mean ‘summum’; it means ‘tops’