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Word of the day: vergankelijkheid (transitoriness, transience)

Old Father Time who is called ‘Vadertje Tijd’ in Dutch has three striking characteristics. He is a patient healer who’s able to cure all things (de tijd heelt alle wonden). He is immortal, even though we sometimes say that we have to kill time (de tijd doden). And he may be old and puny, yet there’s no way that we can keep up with him. Time flies (de tijd vliegt). The Dutch verb VERGAAN expresses the transitoriness of life and time. VERGAAN can mean both ‘decay’ (pass away) and ‘fare’ (pass by). 


‘Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit has a man of all his labour which he takes under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever.’

The verb VERGAAN is congealed in the adjective and adverb VERGANKELIJK (transitory) and its noun VERGANKELIJKHEID (transience). To me words like VERGANKELIJKHEID are pearls in the Dutch word hoard. VERGANKELIJK has a mystical ring to it. It sounds so solemn and ineluctable because its letters and the flow of its syllables mimic the passing of material things. Just close your eyes and slowly utter the sounds VERGANKELIJK or, even better, recite the mantra:


and tell me what you see. In the German language the feminine ‘Vergänglichkeit’ brings off a similar effect.

English ‘transient’ and ‘transitory’ may share a solemn ring but their Latinate sounds do not come close to the mystic sound of the Dutch and German words. Both English words go back to Latin transīre (trans -> across + īre -> to go).

Being VERGANKELIJK means being subject to destruction (ondergang), decay (verval) and death (dood). All humans are VERGANKELIJK (mortal). Is not that a comforting thought?

In the Middle Ages the idea that human life was flighty and freakish must have been terrifying, especially because of the possibility of an afterlife in hell or purgatory. The churches preached ‘memento mori’ which is in Dutch ‘gedenk te sterven’ (remember you must die). Life was endured as one long preparation for death.

In Amsterdam’s Historical Museum there is an interesting exhibition about the earliest known Master Painter Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, his students and his Amsterdam studio in the early sixteenth century. Some magnificent paintings, an early painting of Amsterdam and the attached copy of a woodcut entitled ‘De Vergankelijkheid’ can be seen there.

When I was there, I bought a booklet which is called ‘Het vroegste Amsterdamse schetsboek, Een zestiende-eeuws zakboekje uit het atelier van Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’ (The Earliest Amsterdam Sketchbook, A Sixteenth Century Notebook from the Studio of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen). The sketches in the notebook (from 1523-34) were probably made by the Master’s grandson who was also employed in the studio. The grim sketch of the hanged culprit was probably the model for the skeleton in the woodcut on the left.

On the top of the woodcut are the words from the bible book Ecclesiastes: ‘Alle dinck heeft sinen tijt en alle dinck ghaet voor bij dat onder den hemel is.’ In modern Dutch this is: ‘Alle dingen hebben hun tijd en alle dingen gaan voorbij die onder de hemel zijn’. (All things have their time, and all things that are under heaven pass by.)

No, there is nothing new under the sun and yet time flies and VERGANKELIJKHEID goes on and on and on, forever on:

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.’

What wonderful poetry!