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Word of the Day: GELUKKIG, happy

‘Wees blij’ (be happy). While I was cycling through the sunny centre of Delft last Sunday, my eye was caught by this stern admonition on a blank wall. I admit that I hadn’t been feeling very happy for some time and the flow of the ‘words of the day’ seemed to have dried up. I wasn’t really unhappy either. After some three hundred words of the day my mind had become a bit word-weary. I’d gone astray in a tiresome no-man’s land of feeling neither here nor there. As if she knew, my friend Jet mailed me that I should look into the word ‘blij’ (happy) for another word of the day. BLIJ, GELUKKIG… thanks but no thanks, I thought.


A day later Jet zipped me up with ‘sterven’ (die), ‘overlijden’ (pass away), ‘uit de tijd komen’ (pass over), ‘creperen’ (perish) and ‘sneuvelen’ (be killed). To cheer me up even more, she sent me John Donne’s Holy Sonnet ‘Death Be Not Proud’ which ends in: ‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’ She added that it was used in an Emma Thompson film called ‘Wit’ and said: ‘dit is zoooon prachtig gedicht!’ (this is such a beautiful poem!). I agree, it is. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I agree that this sonnet by the seventeenth century bard cannot be surpassed. ‘Death, thou shalt die!’ Great idea.Happiness and death are close relatives. Life can be so depressing. But death… One could even argue that there is no greater happiness than the awareness that all suffering will come to a halt. The Dutch poet J.C. Bloem (1887-1966) wrote a famous sonnet about his fear for death. It is called ‘Insomnia’ and its opening lines are:

‘Denkend aan de dood kan ik niet slapen,

En niet slapend denk ik aan de dood…

(Thinking of death I cannot sleep / and not sleeping I think of death)

‘Happiness’ is a weird word in English. It has medieval Scandinavian roots which stems from the old word ‘hap’, meaning ‘chance’ or ‘good luck’. So ‘happy’ originally meant ‘lucky’ instead of ‘contented’. The original meaning of ‘hap’ can be found in the verb ‘happen’ and in the word ‘happenstance’ (a coincidence). Diana Ross sang: ‘Now I see life for what it is / It’s not a dream, ooh, it’s not a bliss / It happened to me and it can happen to you’ in her song ‘The Happening’. Neither the Dutch nor the Germans have a word resembling ‘happiness’, the Dutch have to deal with GELUK and the Germans with ‘Glück’.

GELUKKIG has preserved the two different meanings of ‘chance’ and ‘bliss’ to this day. GELUKKIG and in German ‘glücklich’ can mean both ‘happy’ and ‘lucky’. ‘Het GELUK’ and German ‘das Glück’ mean either ‘luck’ or ‘happiness’. When you win the lottery: ‘je hebt GELUK’ (you’re lucky). When you kiss the person you love: ‘je ervaart GELUK’ (you experience happiness).

A very catchy song has been high in the charts in the last couple of months. It’s called ‘Happy’. Pharrell Williams sings: ‘Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof / Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth / Clap along if you know what happiness is to you / Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do / Because I’m happy’. Yeah, and we all clap along because Pharrell’s feeling happy. His infectious song makes you feel happy for a moment but I for one find it hard to imagine how it feels to be ‘like a room without a roof’ and I certainly don’t agree with him that ‘happiness is truth’.

After having sung ‘Happy’ a thousand times, ‘Oh Happy Day’ springs to mind. ‘Oh Happy Day’, the eighteenth century hymn which was made famous by the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969 and later by Whoopi Goldberg’s film and musical ‘Sister Act’. It’s a song that will occupy your mind for the rest of the day: ‘oh happy day, oh happy dayay, when Jesus washed (when Jesus washed), when my Jesus washed my sins away… la la la la…. Catchy!

Embedded up to above her waist and later to her neck in a low mound Winnie, a plump blonde Irish lady of about fifty, is looking forward to finish her happy day by singing a happy song. In Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Happy Days’ (1961) Winnie experiences two wonderfully happy days. To us, in the audience, her situation may look hopeless and futureless, but she herself remains optimistic: ‘Oh this is a happy day!’ she says and: ‘This will have been another happy day! After all. So far.’

Winnie who happens to be stuck in this steadily rising mound is as happy as can be. Her strange spurts of joy are caused by insignificant moments of insight. While inspecting her toothbrush, at the end of the play, she discovers the text ‘hog’s setae’ (bristle) on it. Because she cannot remember what a ‘hog’ is, she asks her husband Willie, who is reading a paper, what the word means. He immediately responds by stating that it is a ‘castrated male swine reared for slaughter’. This makes her day.

GELUK, according to the Dutch Etymological Dictionary stems from the Old Dutch word ‘gilukki’ which may have been derived from an earlier Germanic verb ‘lūkan’ which means ‘to close’. The modern Dutch word ‘luik’ (shuttered window) is related to this word. Like English ‘luck’ GELUK was used for a development or moment which was ‘closed’, ‘enclosed’, ‘complete’ and ‘concluded’. A development or moment which is out of man’s reach. This meaning is a small step removed from ‘fate’ and ‘destination’ and ‘luck’. If fortune, fate and luck are favourably on your side, you are GELUKKIG (fortunate). GELUKKIG (lucky) must have evolved to GELUKKIG (happy).

The Dutch are very lucky to have a magnificent poem about ‘happiness’. It is called ‘De Dapperstraat’. Every time I feel a bit down I return to the lines of this sonnet. Like Donne’s poem it is a brave and masterly example of poetry. My friend Adriaan and I made a new translation especially for you, because we know that many of our Facebook Friends find Dutch poetry difficult to read. We hope you’ll like the poem and its translation.

For those who are not familiar with Amsterdam, you should know that De Dapperstraat is a street in Amsterdam near the Muiderpoort. Each February and March for the last seven years I have gone to the Dapperstraat because it houses the Reinwardt Academy for Museology and because I teach creative writing there. After my workshops I usually loaf about De Dapperstraat before going home. There is a very lively market there. I am sure that Bloem, the poet, refers to this crowded market in his last line. It makes for a good contrast with the opening line which refers to the quietude of nature. Here it is. I have modernized the spelling of the Dutch text somewhat.

De Dapperstraat

Natuur is voor tevredenen of legen.
En dan: wat is natuur nog in dit land?
Een stukje bos, ter grootte van een krant,
Een heuvel met wat villaatjes ertegen.

Geef mij de grauwe, stedelijke wegen,
De in kaden vastgeklonken waterkant,
De wolken, nooit zo schoon dan als ze, omrand
Door zolderramen, langs de lucht bewegen.

Alles is veel voor wie niet veel verwacht.
Het leven houdt zijn wonderen verborgen
Tot het ze, opeens, toont in hun hoge staat.

Dit heb ik bij mijzelve overdacht, $
Verregend, op een miezerige morgen,
Domweg gelukkig, in de Dapperstraat.

J.C. Bloem (1887-1966)

Uit: ‘Quiet though sad’, Den Haag, 1946

The Dapperstraat

Nature is for those who’re smug or blank.
Besides: what’s left of nature in this nook?
A stretch of wood no bigger than a book
A slope with villas scattered on its flank.

I’d rather have the greyish city lanes,
The quays that line the water’s side,
The clouds, much grander when observed to slide
Along the sky, framed in by attic panes.

Anything is much for those whose hopes are low.
Life is wont to keep its wonders veiled,
Exposing them to sweep you off your feet.

This I found myself pondering on a stroll,
Miserably drenched one drizzly day,
Quite simply happy in this market street.

(translation © Hisgen van der Weel, 2014)

A year ago I also discussed the word GELUK in a Word of the Day. Follow this link if you want to read it. It’s completely different.