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

Word of the day: vertrek (departure)

This morning Avril and I went to Schiphol Airport to send our daughter Yolande off. It’s her first cross-Atlantic flight so she was a bit nervous. Even though I know that everything will be alright and that crossing a street in The Hague is riskier than flying by airplane, I still got a lump in my throat when the moment of farewell arrived and she vanished in the airport after having passed passport control. VERTREK is a sad word.


VERTREK is also a ‘het-woord’ like so many two-syllable words that start with the prefix ‘ver’:
verband (connection, bandage), verbond (treaty), verblijf (stay), verbod (ban), verbruik (consumption), verdrag (treaty), vergif (poison), verhaal, (story), verhoor (interrogation), verkeer (traffic), verlof (leave), verlies (loss), verslag (report), verstand (mind), verval (decline), vervoer (transport), verweer (defence) and verzet (resistance). There must be more of these words.

The noun VERTREK comes from the verb VERTREKKEN (vertrok, vertrokken -> depart) which is related to the verb TREKKEN. Originally TREKKEN merely meant ‘to pull’. Somewhere in the Middle Ages this cluster of plosive sounds (/t/ and /k/) also added ‘to go’, ‘to move’ and ‘to travel’ to its long list of meanings.

When bird watchers talk about the TREK, their faces fill themselves with happiness and their eyes involuntarily move towards the far horizon. One watcher once told me that he experienced the migration of birds as a mysterious ritual. Almost like a religion. Well, VOGELTREK has a history older than the Bible, stretching back to the last ice age.

Talking of bird migration… on Tuesday Sandrine and Guillaume told me about the April Fool’s Day joke of the French school that their kids go to. The children were told by their teachers that on April 1st a flock of storks (in Dutch ‘ooievaars’) would migrate back to the Netherlands and that they’d fly over their school. All children were given plastic raincoats, just in case the big birds relieved themselves during their flight and flung their droppings on the innocent tiny ‘oiseleurs’ (bird watchers).

In my imagination I can still see these children standing in the sunny schoolyard dressed in their cheap raincoats staring in the distant sky, shouting: ‘Look, look, there!’ but then they’d realise that the speck was not a stork but a gull or a crow or a pigeon.

After such a practical joke a Dutch kid will laugh and shout: ‘één april, kikker in je bil’ (April Fool, frog in your bottom). Why a frog in one’s derrière? I have no idea. It has nothing to do with the stork’s diet, that’s for sure. And this frog has nothing to do with Frenchmen either.

So back on track, back to VERTREK. Clare Blom asked me: ‘Can you get me some idea about the Dutch prefix VER as in verbs like ‘verlopen’, ‘vergaan’ etc.’ Well, the VER-story is extremely complicated but I’ve cut this long etymological story short.

VER can be used:
1. to express removal or alienation as in VERTREKKEN, ‘vergaan’ (decay), ‘verdwijnen’ (disappear), ‘vernietigen’ (destroy), ‘verbruiken’ (consume), verachten (despise), vervloeken (curse).
2. to emphasize the consequence of an action as in ‘verblijven’ (stay), verschillen (differ), ‘vereren’ (honour), ‘verschuilen’ (hide), ‘veroveren’ (conquer).
3. to express transformation as in ‘veranderen’ (change), ‘verzilveren’ (convert into cash), ‘vergulden’ (gild).