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Word of the day: vrij (free)

On the fifth of May the Dutch celebrate the liberty they achieved in 1945 when the occupying Nazi’s were defeated. Almost seventy years on, the celebrations continue. The Dutch call this day ‘bevrijdingsdag’ (liberation day). Yet for many people it is not a VRIJE DAG ( a holiday). Every five years it is an official holiday. So in 2025, May fifth will be a day when all of us will be free of work.

With its four letters VRIJ is a small and unpretentious word. And yet, its sound is a pleasure to play around with, in one’s mouth. You move from the depths of your throat to the valves of your lips. Just try it. Pronounce VRIJ several times after each other and it will make you feel happy.

Maybe also because VRIJ rhymes with the other joyful four-letter word BLIJ (happy).

Another reason why it will make us feel happy is because it is related to the verb VRIJEN (to make love), the noun VRIEND (friend), the noblest of all ideals VREDE (peace) and the soft eternal source that draws all humans on: VROUW (woman).

VRIJ, VRIJHEID (freedom), BEVRIJDING (liberation)…

VRIJ is one of the oldest Dutch and English words. It occurs in the first complete Dutch recorded phrase. This phrase dates back to the eighth century: ‘maltho thi afrio lito’ ‘ik zeg je: ik laat deze slaaf vrij’ (I declare to you: I am letting this serf free). This was the official phrase a nobleman used to say when he liberated an enslaved person according to the Frankish Salic or Salian law.

Can you imagine how happy this man or woman would have felt after hearing these liberating words: ‘maltho thi afrio!’?

So, the first and foremost meaning of VRIJ is ‘unbound’, ‘on one’s own’, ‘not in servitude’. Let’s hope that there will be many BEVRIJDINGSDAGEN (liberation days) in the future all over the world.

VRIJ, FREE… the happiest, freest song I know is Chick Corea’s ‘Light as a Feather’ in which the Brazilian Flora Purim sings with the sexiest of voices the simplest of lyrics:

‘Clear days feel so good and free
So light as a feather can be
There’s a place so easy to be found
If you want I’ll take you there right now
Come with me there’s music all around
Can’t you hear can’t you see I am free’

I bought this record when I started my studies at Leiden University in September 1973 and I still treasure this record because the happy music of this jazz record reminds of the many explorations in the world of language and literature. Explorations that set me free.