October 7, 2013
Can you guess what EPIBREREN means? Does it mean ‘expire’ or ‘depilate’ or ‘write epilogues’ or ‘evaluate’ or ‘calibrate’? None of these. It is a nonsense word, meaning absolutely nothing. Funny, because it has found its modest way in English, French, Antillian and German communities.
EPIBREREN according to the Dutch dictionary means ‘perform unspecified activities which should give the impression that they are important, even though they don’t amount to anything’. That’s a lot of words for something so meaningless: EPIBREREN, epibreerde, heeft geëpibreerd.
It is, however, an extremely useful word. Suppose you want to get rid of someone. You could then say: ‘Sorry, maar ik bezig mijn computer te epibreren’. (Sorry, I’m busy epibrating my computer). Words ending in ‘–eren’ suggest erudition and can easily impress others. People don’t like to admit that they don’t know a word, so they go along with it, pretending to understand what you’re talking about.
You could even concoct the etymology of EPIBREREN. The prefix ‘epi’ is a Greek preposition meaning ‘near’, ‘close’, ‘close upon’, ‘on’, ‘upon’, ‘above’, ‘toward’, ‘on the occasion of’, ‘in addition’. And the word ‘breren’ could be derived from the non-existing verb ‘brederen’ meaning ‘broaden’. So EPIBREREN then is a combination of ‘toward’ and ‘broaden’: ‘be on the edge of broadening’. All nonsense of course….
Why this verb today? Because the guy who launched this word into the Dutch language is celebrating his hundredth birthday today. His name is Simon Carmiggelt (7 October 1913-30 November 1987). He is a well-known Dutch writer because of his daily newspaper columns and his television appearances. He was born in The Hague where he lived till the end of the Second World War and then moved to Amsterdam where he remained until his death.
I have never met him but I feel that I have a special relationship with him. For three reasons. We both attended the same secondary school. Carmiggelt forty years earlier of course, but still. My father also attended this school. It does not exist anymore. It was the Handelsdagschool (Commercial School) and I can tell you this school was hell. HELL. All we learned was bookkeeping, commercial arithmetic, commercial law, commercial correspondence, commercial everything…. My father and I managed to sit it out, but Carmiggelt dropped out, and I can understand why.
The second reason why I feel akin to him is his readiness to learn boxing. He went to a boxing school at the end of the thirties because of the threat of the Nazis. I went because I was tired of being bullied. My father who is 92 now, also learned boxing in 1939 because he wanted to stand up to his German teacher at school who insisted on calling him Miss. He never did fight this teacher eventually and apparently he turned out to be a nice guy. Maybe we all three had the same teacher, Karel de Jager.
Anyway, my third reason is obvious. I like his dry and humorous style of writing and I share his liking for authors like Willem Elsschot.
Back to EPIBREREN
Carmiggelt used this word for the first time in a column in the newspaper ‘Het Parool’. In an interview he said he heard the word for the first time in the year of my birth 1953 (known as the ‘rampjaar’, year of the disaster when Holland was flooded). An ‘ambtenaar’ (civil servant) had sent Carmiggelt away because the document that he was waiting for had to be epibrated. The story then continues:
‘“Ik wou eens vragen,” zei ik moeilijk, “u sprak zoëven van epibreren…
het zal wel erg dom van me zijn, maar wat is dat eigenlijk?”
Een gemompel van bijval ging door de rijen en ook de ambtenaar keek licht ontroerd, toen hij mijn hand greep en sprak: “Dit is werkelijk een heel bijzonder ogenblik, meneer.”
“Waarom?” antwoordde ik.
“Omdat u vraagt wat het betekent,” zei de man. “Het betekent namelijk niets. Het is gewoon maar een woord. Ik heb het zelf verzonnen. Op een dag was er een lastige heer aan het loket, die ons haast wilde laten maken met een kwestie, die zijn tijd moest hebben. Ik zei: “Meneer, u hebt groot gelijk, maar geef ons nog een weekje om de zaak te epibreren.” Het woord kwam vanzelf uit mijn volheid tevoorschijn. En het werkte uitnemend: de man ging getroost heen.”’
From the collection of columns ‘Ping pong’ (Amsterdam, 1954)
‘“Could you tell me?” I said with difficulty, “Just now you spoke of epibrating…
maybe very stupid of me, but what does it mean?”
A murmuring of approval went through the rows of people and even the civil servant looked slightly moved, when he grabbed my hand and spoke: “This really is a very special moment, Sir.”
“Why?,” I answered.
“Because you ask what it means,” the man said. “As it happens, it doesn’t mean anything at all. I made it up myself. One day there was a troublesome gentleman at the counter, who wanted to make us hurry a matter, which needed its time. I said: “Sir, you are quite right, but allow us another week to epibrate the matter. The word presented itself from the fullness of my heart. And it worked excellently: the man went away in a resigned mood.”’
Translation: Ruud Hisgen © 2013
If you want to get acquainted with Simon Carmiggelt, here he is reading one of his Kronkels (twisted columns)