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Herfst is here: Time to update your Dutch vocabulary!

Written by Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute) for I am Expat

Summer is definitely over and we’re right in the middle of autumn. Storms are raging, rain is falling and the trees are shedding their leaves. All the vivid greens are quickly fading to brown and gold. Yes, it’s herfst (or “najaar”), as the season is called in the Netherlands. Ruud Hisgen has collected some vocabulary and idioms that you can use to impress your Dutch friends and neighbours.

Why is the season called herfst?

The French call it “automne and the English “autumn. Until the sixteenth century, the season was called “harvest” in England. An appropriate word, because the end of summer is the time of year when farmers reap and gather the ripened grain. Harvest is related to herfst, the Dutch word that has been around for at least a millennium in the Low Countries.

The Dutch word for harvest is “oogst”. Surprisingly, this word was derived from “augustus” (the eighth month of the year). August, of course, is traditionally the beginning of the “oogst” and the harvest months.

Herfst in the Netherlands is poignantly beautiful

Nature is preparing itself for winter. Take some time off and cycle through the parks and the dunes; travel to Het Nationaal Park De Hoge Veluwe, where the rent of a bicycle is included in the modestly priced entrance ticket. Enjoy the wonderful smells of the herfst and allow yourself to be stunned by the fiery colours of the falling leaves.

Gather kastanjes (chestnuts) with your kids. If you’re lucky, you can see and hear the bellowing of a giant stag (het burlen van een hert).

Autumn vocabulary

Here are some other beautiful and useful herfst words that refer to objects that you can explore in nature with your loved ones.

Paddenstoel (mushroom)

It’s almost a magic word, isn’t it? Its literal translation is toadstool, but I do wonder if toads really need a chair to sit on… They should have called it “kabouterstoel”, because kabouters (gnomes and goblins) love to rock back on forth on them, so a popular Dutch children’s song says.

The most beautiful mushroom is de “vliegenzwam” (fly agaric) with its white-spotted red mushroom top. Leave these toadstools in peace, as picking them is forbidden and some of them are poisonous.

Spinnen (spiders)

Spiders and their intricate constructions, spider webs (spinnenwebben), are everywhere. In Belgium and the Netherlands, there are about 700 different kinds. Some people are terrified when they see one; but have no fear, they are harmless over here.

We should be happy that they’re here because they make sure that the world isn’t inundated with mosquitos, flies and other insects. The most famous spider in the Netherlands is called Sebastiaan and he is the main character in a fantastic song by Dutch writer Annie M.G. Schmidt.

Winterslaap (hibernation)

Many animals get ready for a long rest in the winter. The squirrel (de eekhoorn) doesn’t hibernate but instead rests in the winter, eating the nuts and seeds that it has collected during the autumn. The European hedgehog (de egel) usually hibernates in the winter, and so does the bat (de vleermuis). The frog (de kikker) and toad (de pad) hide in the mud of ditches (de sloten).

Trekvogels (migratory birds)

Many Dutch birdwatchers (vogelaars) can be found in the dunes or on hilltops, watching and counting the many birds that migrate to warmer regions. As you probably know, the word “vogel” means bird and the verb “trekken” can mean “to move” or “to travel”.

Herfst is a funny word…

Poets who are fond of rhyme, hate the word herfst, because, with its four consecutive consonants “r”, “f”, “s” and “t” (very rare in Dutch), it is one of the few words that have no “serious” rhyming matches.

While that may be so, the season still inspires many Dutch wordsmiths. Poets love the melancholy sensation that is evoked by the idea of a dying season ending in a cold and frosty winter.

Dutch herfst poem

The most famous Dutch herfst poem is called “November” and it was published in 1921 by the famous poet J.C. Bloem (1887 – 1966). Here are the first and last stanzas, which I’ve translated for you. Learn them by heart. Good for your mastery of Dutch!


Het regent en het is november:
Weer keert het najaar en belaagt
Het hart, dat droef, maar steeds gewender,
Zijn heimelijke pijnen draagt.

Verloren zijn de prille wegen
Om te ontkomen aan den tijd;
Altijd november, altijd regen,
altijd dit lege hart, altijd.

It’s raining and it’s November:
Fall returns and besieges again
The heart, which sadly endures,
Settling down to its secret pain.

No more ways to escape from time,
Gone are the tender days;
Always November, always rain,
Always this empty heart, always.

The last two lines in particular are on many a Dutch persons’ lips, when the curtains are opened to a grey, rainy herfstochtend (autumn morning). It’s a good excuse for a “lekker kopje thee” (a nice cup of tea) or some good old Dutch courage in the shape of a glass of jenever.

So, enjoy the herfst as much as you can, but be careful because “de dagen worden korter” (days are becoming shorter) and Sinterklaas and Christmas are nigh!

This article was originally published in October 2019