‘Is Buffy een DIER of een BEEST?’ The questioner is Eva, one of our students, and the breathing four-legged furry carnivorous canine creature in question is Avril’s thirteen year old faithful dog. Animal or beast? BEEST of DIER? One thing is for sure, in Dutch they are both ‘het’ words. According to the largest dictionary in the world, ‘Het woordenboek der Nederlandse taal’ (the work of five generations between 1864-1998 with over 400,000 headwords) BEEST is ‘a living creature not endowed with reason’. Whereas a DIER ‘can be void of reason or rational’.
So where do these words come from? The word BEEST entered the Dutch language around the first millennium via Old French ‘beste’ (modern French ‘bête’) which was derived from Latin ‘bēstia’ meaning large wild animal. By contrast DIER (equally old) was originally a Germanic word. It has survived in German (‘Tier’) and Scandinavian languages (‘dyr’ and ‘djur’). What it originally meant, remains a mystery to etymologists. Old English ‘dēor’ (meaning both ‘animal’ and ‘deer’) has only survived in the specific horned ‘deer’. And ‘deer’ in Dutch is ‘hert’ (also known in English as hart).
Buffy, BEEST or DIER? Let me be the judge. I call this specific dog DIER and not BEEST. The animals I like, I call DIER and those that frighten or disgust me are a BEEST.
People who cannot restrain and tame the ‘beast within’, those who kill, rape, rob and act uncivilised are called BEEST, ONMENS (‘unhuman’) or BRUUT. Imperturbable sadistic tirants and cruel oppressors enter history books with the epithet BEESTACHTIG. The BEESTACHTIGSTE of all is HET BEEST that we call evil or devil.
A DIER cannot be BEESTACHTIG or evil. A DIER appeals to our sense of tenderness. And those people that we love so dearly and kiss and cuddle, we tend to call DIER, LIEF DIER, or DIERTJE.
In human eyes a BEEST is usually untamed, savage and brutal, whereas a DIER is friendly, useful and proper in a decent way. Nature does not make any distinctions. In the natural world BEEST and DIER are the same.
For centuries religion deluded us into thinking that humans – flawed and sinful as they may be – are noble rulers of nature, beasts and plants. Evolution theory, however, makes a reasonable case that humans have no kingdom of their own and are as much DIER and BEEST as any other living creature on this planet: cows, birds, fish, whales, monkeys, tigers, elephants, mice, cats and dogs…