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

Word of the Day: OUBOLLIG, old-fashioned

OUDBOLLIG, old-fashioned

No, wrong! It’s definitely not OUDBOLLIG, but OUBOLLIG! This adjective is not a combination of the words ‘oud’ (old) and ‘bol’ (ball, head). Of course I know that many Dutch people will tenaciously say OUBOLLIG with a ‘d’ after ‘ou’, but that is due to their ignorance.


They’ll say: ‘Heb je “The Passion” gezien? Nee, dat is zo oudbollig.’ (Have you seen The Passion? No, that is so old-time). Most of the time the word is used in an unfavourable context. However, if you search the word on Twitter, there are many tweets in which the word seems to lean to a favourable meaning. E.g. ‘Meissie met een pot bier op een terras bij een oudbollig cafe in De Schermer’ (Girlie with a glass of beer outside a cosy café in De Schermer).

Apparently the Dutch have lost track of the original meaning of OUBOLLIG. They are mistaken about its spelling and even more confused about its meaning. They assume that ‘ou’ was derived from ‘old’. How wrong they are. Let’s go back in time to see where OUBOLLIG comes from and what it has to do with the Belgians.

In the Middle Ages the Germanic word was spelled ‘ābulgi’ and it was related to Old English ‘ǣbylg’ (anger). The prefix ‘a-‘ or ‘ǣ’ is an intensifier of the following verb. The verb ‘belgen’ or in Old English ‘belgan’ means ‘to swell with anger’. Today the Dutch still use the adjective ‘verbolgen’ which means ‘enraged’.

There is another word in which the Dutch verb ‘belgen’ lives on. Yes, it’s the name of our southern neighbours ‘de Belgen’. No, you say, that can’t be true. Yes, some etymologists say, it is true. In Roman times Julius Caesar heard that the ‘Belgae’ were a Celtic tribe which was very hotheaded, whose wrath was easily aroused. The name of the Belgians tells us that they were people who swell with anger and fury and love to go to battle.

So how did OUBOLLIG move from anger to cosiness? Somewhere between the end of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century the meaning of passionate developed into pathetic. There is a very thin line between hotheadedness and madness. The more enlightened people got, the more they distrusted unruly emotions and so the word OUBOLLIG evolved to ‘grappig’ (funny), ‘koddig’ (droll) and ‘kluchtig’ (comical). When the Dutch referred to ‘een oubollig café’ in the eighties they thought it was funny.

Over the last three decades the meaning of OUBOLLIG has changed again. Nowadays most Dutch people will refer to a ‘café’ as OUBOLLIG (or as they mistakenly say ‘oudbollig’) and they probably won’t mean ‘droll’ but ‘gezellig’ in the old fashioned way.