Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
The coolest Dutch words are those that don’t exist in English at all. The general concept might exist, but the Dutch flavour just gives it that something extra. Sure, everyone drinks. We all party. But only the Dutch have borrels. Likewise, we all get sick of having to peck the chalky cheeks of ageing relatives every time we see them. But the Dutch, compelled as they are to kiss everyone not once or twice but three times, can express their irritation with the word zoendwang, or ‘the pressure to kiss’.
Gedogen is a real winner, too, conveying in itself an entire cultural concept so foreign to some, and yet so Dutch. ‘Tolerance’ doesn’t quite cover it. You can tolerate people who play really loud death metal through their iPhone on the bus. You can tolerate your neighbours playing raucous hide-the-salami through a paper-thin wall. But gedogen extends brilliantly to that oh-so-Dutch acceptance of mild law-breaking: a spot of prostitution here; a dash of drugs there. Who needs New York’s zero tolerance policy?
Some Dutch words you’d need a whole sentence or more for in English. Toch, for example, has that typical Dutch directness about it, conveying in a single, neat little word a whole range of implied meanings (“this is in fact the case, though someone may appear to be denying it …”). Then there’s hoeveelste. Say you know a girl who has several sisters, and you want to ask which (in order of number) daughter of her parents she is, such that she might reply “I’m the fourth daughter”. The word you’d need in English for that is something like which-th, though of course we haven’t invented that yet.
What English also lacks is a word that captures all that’s involved in gezelligheid. This can be translated as cosy, convivial or fun, but also includes a sense of pleasant, sociable togetherness with friends or family. Apparently the English don’t enjoy such simple pleasures enough to label them. Similarly, the Dutch and other continental Europeans all have a word for leedvermaak. This is not to say the English don’t revel in that sense of malicious joy; apparently we’re just too ‘polite’ to name it.
In other cases, a single Dutch word might mean dozens of different things in English. Take lekker, for example. This can mean anything from good, great, nice, lovely, fine, pleasant and comfortable to tasty, delicious, sweet and sexy. We’d be better off doing as the South Africans do, and simply incorporating lekker into English. Which we’ve done, of course, with the word apartheid. No translation needed.