Rotten, naked and headless

Column published on 24 February 2011 in the Observant, Maastricht

Living abroad means learning excellent new words. And Dutch names are among the most excellent of these. Me being me, I’m a big fan of all those names that mean something completely different in English. Having a girl? Try Joke, or perhaps even Floor. A boy? You can’t go past Flip. Or Taco. Or better yet: Harm (no-one’s messing with that kid in the playground). Two of my all-time favourites are Canoe for a sweet little girl, and the enigmatic Hunger for a strapping young lad.

Then there’s Aad, Aaf and Aag – perhaps not much in themselves, but these would certainly put you first on any alphabetical list. And Coen: this is one I’ve never been able to bring myself to say, given its unfortunate homophony with a word meaning ‘nigger’ in Australian slang. (Hoor – as in, ‘Wilt u de bon?’/‘Ja hoor’ – is another word I’m still averse to saying, given its equally unfortunate homophony with the English ‘whore’.)

Sometimes I’ll avoid a word less because of what it sounds like and more because I just can’t say it. Geert is a tough one for foreigners, as is just about any word starting with that infamous g. Working as an English teacher here, I once asked a new student his name. ‘Ghh-ghlhrgh’, he said, which I took to be him clearing his throat. I waited. He cleared his throat again. I asked again. He coughed up some phlegm. This went on for some time, until eventually it transpired that he was simply saying his name, Guy. Needless to say, I stuck safely to the English pronunciation for that one.

Last names are a barrel of laughs too. Fun fact of the day: last names weren’t common here until after 1811, when Napoleon conquered the Netherlands and decided he’d want to collect taxes. This required a census, which required family names. The Dutch, for their part, figured this French folly wouldn’t last, and thus many of them chose funny or offensive names. Rotmensen (‘rotten people’), Naaktgeboren (‘born naked’) and Zeldenthuis (‘seldom at home’) are some real winners. Then there’s one of my personal favourites, Kaasenbrood (‘cheese and bread’), not to mention the just-plain violent Zonderkop (‘without a head’).

To really rub the joke in, when asked to register their name some quick-witted individuals ended up with De Keizer (‘Who are you?’/‘I’m the emperor’). But the joke wasn’t always on the French, it seems, as it’s also left some families handing down through the generations names like Poepjes (officially ‘excrement’, but perhaps more accurately ‘poopie’).

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