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The origin of Dutch sand (zand)

By Ruud Hisgen

For most Dutch people the beach is of vital importance. When ZON, ZEE and ZAND are in harmony, life just seems one happy Dutch beach. Unfortunately most of the year the ZON is hiding behind clouds full of rain, foreboding disastrous weather. The beach then is a… er, lifeless.

The majority of the Dutch are fond of the beach because they live in the river delta called ‘Randstad’ (the urban agglomeration of Western Holland). In this densely populated area the length of the beach and the vastness of the sea give the Dutch a sense of freedom.

The Dutch may sometimes think they are… but no, they certainly are not the only coastdwellers on earth. According to coastal zone managers an estimated eighty percent of the world’s megacities is located in fragile deltas. Many cities like New Orleans, Venice, Alexandria, San Francisco, Bangkok are at risk. Fate can strike in the shape of hurricanes, earth quakes and storm surges or other floods. The changing climate in this rapidly warming world makes clever management indispensable for coastal cities.

However, let’s go ‘terug naar de kust’ (back to the coast), back to the beach and its sand. Have you ever wondered where all that sand comes from?

What if I were to tell you, that the sand you’re building your sand castle with, is pulverized mountain rock probably from the Alps? Would you believe me? Yes, it is true.

The Netherlands was created in sand and is built on sand. Sea sand is the product of broken down and rounded off river sand. And river sand is nothing more or less than a boulder which broke off one of the mountains in Germany, Switzerland, Austria or France and forced along by rivers such as the Rhine. In the streams the boulders lose their cragginess because they roll over each other until they become rolling stones and stones when rolling gather no moss but are gradually ground to sand. Granite will turn into sand after a river voyage of 300 kilometres, limestone after some 85 kilometres and sandstone after 15 kilometres.

So when your children are playing on the beach and you are enjoying the feel of sand on your bare feet, remember that you’re looking at the remains of a proud and haughty Alpine mountain. That is if you’re situated on the yellowish beach south of the seaside resort Bergen. The greyish sand north of Bergen originates from Scandinavian rivers that flowed here in the one but last ice age.

Sand, (het) ZAND, is a word that is probably older than the Germanic languages that we know. Etymologists think that it goes back to a now vanished word that must have meant ‘material which was cut small or crushed’.

Say ZAND and the Dutch immediately rhyme it with STRAND. In other countries beach (as we saw in the previous posting) can also mean rock, pebbles and shingle. Samuel Beckett recognized the unstable state of his artistic mind in the strand of Killiney not far from Dublin’s Foxrock where he grew up. He wrote: ‘my way is in the sand flowing / between the shingle and the dune’. So for him the word beach was associated with ‘shingle’, ‘sand’ and ‘dune’.

Beckett wrote this poem in French and English in 1948 in a rare productive period when he was financially impoverished. In this period he managed to write the absurd play that would change the history of theatre drastically: ‘Waiting for Godot’. If you wonder what the rest of this stanza is like, here it is, first in original French, then in English and finally in a Dutch translation. Listen carefully and you hear the sound of sand and rain…

‘je suis ce cours de sable qui glisse
entre le galet et la dune
la pluie d’été pleut sur ma vie
sur moi ma vie qui me fuit me poursuit
et finira le jour de son commencement’ […] 

‘my way is in the sand flowing
between the shingle and the dune 
the summer rain rains on my life
on me my life harrying fleeing
to its beginning to its end’ […] 

‘mijn weg voert door het zand dat vloeit
tussen de kiezels en het duin
de zomerregen regent op mijn leven
op mij mijn leven dat mij bezoekt en vervliegt
naar zijn begin naar zijn eind’ […]


From: Samuel Beckett, ‘Collected Poems 1930-1978’, London, 1984, pp 58-59, Dutch translation: Hisgen van der Weel)

This article was originally published as Word of the Day ‘Zand’ in July 2015