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Word of the Day: MEEUW, gull

In the early sixties the whole wide world was shocked by Hitchcock’s horror movie hit ‘The Birds’. Because I was only ten, I wasn’t allowed to see this macabre film, but I heard terrifying stories of men and women being chased and violently attacked and even killed by waves of gulls and crows. Because of Hitchcock (what’s in a name?) and this thriller, birds had lost their innocence forever for me. Hitchcocks impressive tribute to our feathered friends can be found here.


In those days I had a close encounter with gulls. The father of my best friend Edgar was an enthusiastic bird watcher. Early one morning in spring he took us birding in the dunes between Scheveningen and Wassenaar. Edgar’s father gave each of us a stick. ‘De meeuwen broeden,’ (the gulls are brooding) he whispered ominously: ‘They don’t like people near their nests’. But then he smiled reassuringly: ‘When they attack, just hold your stick up high, for gulls always attack the highest point’.

Apparently, birding was not as harmless and boring a hobby as I had imagined it to be. Sitting gulls can be aggressive and will attack if you approach their nests. There we were in the cold morning sun. Edgar and I were about to play our roles in a scene that Hitchcock could have designed for ‘Birds II’. We walked and walked through the dunes and along the beach, but the gulls left us alone and we never had to use our sticks. What a disappointment. Fifty years later, I remember my one and only birding adventure and still feel that sensation of imminent danger.


These large gulls that attack so aggressively, are called ‘zilvermeeuwen’ (herring gulls). The birds fled from the dunes because foxes ate their eggs when they were put out by nature lovers in the eighties of the previous century. Gulls have been prowling around The Hague ever since. They nest on flat roofs in the city because the surfaces are covered with gravel and look like the gulls’ natural dune habitat. The sea is too far now and that’s why the birds rip open garbage bags in search of food.

In the centre of The Hague fish shop Simonis has a notice warning their herring eaters that they should eat their fish underneath the sunshade where the gulls cannot attack from the sky. Hagenaars call these robber-gulls ‘luchtratten’ (flying rats). Gulls don’t deserve this abusive name. They are beautiful wild hunters and kings and queens of the sea and the sky along the coast. These aristocrats should return to their natural habitats because they weren’t born to be citydwellers.

The word MEEUW also exists in Great Britain where the bird is known as ‘gull’. Gull is one of the few Celtic words that managed to invade the Anglo-Saxon language. In Welsh the bird is known as ‘gŵylan’, in Cornish ‘guilan’, in Breton ‘goelann’ (in French ‘goéland’), in Old Irish ‘foilenn’ and in modern Irish ‘faoileann’. The Breton word ‘goelaff’ means ‘to weep’; so is a ‘gull’ a weeping bird? And is there a connection with old myths which have it that gulls are reincarnated souls of drowned sailors.

meeuwbuitenhof2MEEUW is a Germanic word which also occurs in Old English as is proven by this quote from the wonderful poem ‘The Seafarer’ which mentions the singing of the gull: ‘mæw singende’

‘Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor
and huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende fore medodrince’.

([Exiled on the sea I heard nothing
But the resounding sea, the ice-cold waves.] Sometimes the song of the swan
I took for my pleasure, the cry of the gannet,
and the music of the curlew for the laughter of men,
the gull’s singing for the drinking of mead.)

Apparently Shetlanders still use the word ‘maw’ instead of ‘gull’, the Scots and English sometimes use the word ‘mew’ and in North America there are ‘mew gulls’. In Germany they call the MEEUW, ‘Möwe’. According to etymologist Ms Nicoline van der Sijs the word was written down in Dutch in 1287 for the first time.

Etymologists have no idea what the exact origins are of the word MEEUW (maw, mew, möwe). Does it go back to old Germanic words meaning ‘blue’ or ‘brash’ or ‘cheeky’? The word MEEUW resembles a cat’s ‘miaow’ and in Frisian the word is even spelled as ‘meau’ or ‘mieu’. So the sound of the word could be an echo of the gull’s cry. Another theory is more to my liking. In Old Norse the word for gull ‘mær’ also means ‘slim’ or ‘narrow’ and this could refer to the elegant shape of the bird.

There is more to the MEEUW than an ordinary ‘luchtrat’ (sky rat). They may look at you with a psychopathic grin, but in essence they are banished aristocrats. So here is a little ode I wrote to the ZILVERMEEUW (herring gull) for a little book of poetry called ‘Gedichten van de badmeester’ (poems by the life guard) from 2002. Underneath is a literal translation for your convenience. The photos were made by Yolande Hisgen (hofvijver) and Ruud Hisgen

De zilvermeeuw

Sinds Reinaert al haar kuikens vrat
en eieren roofde in het duin,
voedt zij haar kroost op in de stad
en broedt platdak op grind en puin.

Uit haar zandig paradijs
vol zeebanket verdreven,
moet zij vogelvrij en wereldwijs
van ranzig afval leven.

De zee kan zij nu wel vergeten:
vissen is voortaan taboe.
“Verandering van spijs doet vreten,”
bijt kokmeeuw haar venijnig toe.

The herring gull

Since Reynard preyed on her chicks
and robbed all her eggs in the dunes,
she must breed her kids down town
and brood stony broke on gravel roofs.

Banished from her paradise
of sand and seafood
she is outlawed and lives worldly-wise
on rancid rubbish.

She can shake off the sea by now:
fishing is henceforth taboo.
‘Variety is the spice of life’
snarls black-headed gull at her.