I admitted to the counterman in Amsterdam recently how embarrassed I was that I’d only learned a few niceties in the lingua franca for my trip. “Never mind,” he said. “Everyone speaks English here. Anyway, you already know a lot more Dutch than you think you do.” He was right; a few hours — and several puffs of hashish — later, I was convinced I was fluent.
But before you start thinking all Dutch and English words that look alike actually have the same meaning, please be aware that slagroom is not a warren for wanton women; it means whipped cream. And should you have a hankering [hunkeren] in Holland for the popcorn treat Poppycock [pappeka], don’t tell anyone; Dutch grocers don’t stock their shelves with boxes of liquid feces — not even in the red-light district.
When the Dutch arrived in the New World in the early 17th century they brought more than coleslaw [koolsla] in their knapsacks [knapzak – snack bag], and cookies [koejkes] in their rucksacks [rugzak – back bag]: They also brought along a wealth of words that wiggled [wiggelen] their way into the American and British lexicons.
Shortly after handing over that apocryphal fistful of coins and broken necklaces as payment for New York City [née Nieuw-Amsterdam] the newcomers went about naming areas and towns after those back in their homeland, from Hoboken [Hooghe Buechen – high beeches] to Harlem [Haarlem, a municipality of North Holland]
As fur traders, they cast their beaver traps deep into Brooklyn [Breuckelen – broken land], and as far away as Coney Island, which was so densely populated by precious soon-to-be-butchered bunnies that they called it Konijn Eiland: Rabbit Island.
In fairness, however, not everything the skippers [schipper] brought over from Amsterdam was as cuddly as the Santa Claus [Sinterklaas – Saint Nicholas] myth they gave us — the Dutch bosses [baas] also brought a more bittersweet import: slave-harvested sugar.
And when the Dutch East India Company yachted [jacht] their schooners [schoener] into the slips of South Africa, they unknowingly dropped a metaphorical anchor that would take hundreds of years to raise: Apartheid, or “separateness.”
While the Dutch clearly soiled their hands in the Triangle Trade, they were certainly less brutish than most colonizers of their day — in fact, when the British stormed into New Amsterdam, Dutchmen were so unbothered they barely lifted a pinkie [pinkje] in defense, loafer’d [loper – walked] back to their ships and headed home. And when the French, and later Germans, rolled into the Netherlands, Amsterdamers sat calmly on their stoops [stoep] and tossed their keys to the interlopers.
Nowadays the Netherlands is best known as a bulwark [bolwerk] of unabashed liberalism, with Amsterdam as the one of the most ethnically diverse and tolerant cities in the world.
In the 1970s Royal Dutch Airlines positioned its capital as a haven for geeks [geks – “lunatics”] and hippies, advertising that they should come to Amsterdam, light-up, bundle-up [bondel] and “Sleep in the Vondelpark!”
Although the Netherlands’s [nether + land – “low country”] tolerance for prostitution has been one of the country’s seedier hallmarks since as far back as the Middle Ages, it wasn’t until 2000 that the oldest profession became officially legal. However, it should come as no surprise that their laws are the most liberal in all of Europe.
The following year, amidst much frolic [vrolijk] and champagne slurping [slurpen] the Netherlands became the very first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
And what of that most famous of all the Dutch icons? No, not Haarlem’s greatest export, the tulip [tulp], which is actually a 17th-century Ottoman Empire import. And no, I’m not talking about those crazy wooden shoes, or Delftware, or even windmills. I’m talking about Amsterdam’s [dam on the river Amstel] legendary hashish-hazed “coffee shops.” While not all aspects of the cannabis cafes are technically legal (and many seemingly nonsensical rules apply), it is however legally tolerated by the less-than-domineering [domineren] Dutch government.
And if you’ve puffed a bit too much one night and find yourself in a pickle [pekel], just stumble out and grab [grijpen] a taxi — don’t worry, your cabbie will understand every word: I mean, you are practically fluent at this point, after all.
Note: Dutchman, Beavers, Windmill, and Lenape Native