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Word of the Day: polder (polder)

Over the last two weeks I’ve been discussing a score of words that evoke the fluid character of the Dutch nation. Water words that are at the heart of the Dutch and tell the tale of the evolution of the Dutchman. Understand these words and their rich meaningful treasures and you’ll discover the hidden identity of the Netherlands: GRACHT, WAD, SLUIS, MOLEN, DIJK, BOULEVARD, STRAND, ZAND, DUIN, ZANDMOTOR. So where are RIVIER, MEER, SLOOT, ZEE? Later, I’ll come back to those words at a later stage. I’ll conclude this watery sequence with the word that has made the Dutch water world world famous and needs no translation: POLDER.


What is a POLDER exactly? Diked in and drained low-lying land. Well, you say, that is practically all of the West, the Centre and the North of the Netherlands. True, you’re right. Lots of Zeeland, South and North Holland, Utrecht, Friesland, Groningen and Flevoland consist of polders. As we have seen, the invention of the MOLEN, the wind-powered polder mill in 1407, made it possible to pump up larger quantities of water. By 1533 the first lake was drained and the first polder was a fact.

But, you protest, POLDER must be a much older word. True. It goes back to the pre-reclaimed land period in the early Middle Ages when POLDER still meant a piece of land higher than its surroundings. Dutch still carries a shade of this meaning, even though it is almost unrecognizably fossilised, in the word ‘graspol’ (clump of grass). POLDER originally meant ‘deposited’ or ‘silted land’ near a river or the sea. A dike must have been put up in order to prevent this new land from being flooded. And these must have been the OERPOLDERS, the original polders.

So from the fifteenth century on the Dutch gave way to their obsessive urges to reclaim land. They even had plans to reclaim the entire Wadden Sea and of course the entire Zuyder Zee. A modicum of common sense prevented this from happening in the second half of the previous century. The Dutch have enough land for agriculture, industry and for cities and houses, and they need space for wildlife and recreation on water.

The word POLDER, as I said, is well known over the entire world and together with Dutch watermanagement expertise the word was exported to all those place where the consultants and engineers went. With the result that many languages borrowed POLDER from us. Some countries like Finland admitted the word but have no use for it, because they have no land that needs reclaiming.

The word POLDERMODEL and the associated verb POLDEREN (solving problems by using dialogue) travelled all over the world. Yesterday I was discussing the phenomenon of the POLDERMODEL with two of our students, Daniel from Rumania and Manolis from Greece, and they were astonished when they learned that POLDEREN is at the basis of our democracy and said that this type of consensus-based economic and social policy making was unthinkable in their governments.

According to the British (sic!) Wikipedia ‘the current polder model is said to have begun with the Wassenaar Accords of 1982 when unions, employers, and government decided on a comprehensive plan to revitalise the economy involving shorter working times and less pay on the one hand, and more employment on the other. This polder model, combined with a neoliberal economic policy of privatisation and budget cuts has been held to be responsible for the Dutch economic miracle of the late 1990s.’

This clever wiki suggests several explanations for the origins of the Polder Model. Personally I find their third explanation most feasible. It dates the birth of the consensus model at the end of the Middle Ages ‘when different societies living in the same polder were forced to cooperate because without unanimous agreement on shared responsibility for maintenance of the dikes and pumping stations, the polders would have flooded and everyone would have suffered. Crucially, even when different cities in the same polder were at war, they still had to cooperate in this respect. This is thought to have taught the Dutch to set aside differences for a greater purpose.’

POLDEREN can be seen as an adequate instrument for any democracy, but there are others who think it is the end of democracy. In their negative definition of the word POLDEREN means ‘discussing problems endlessly without daring to make a decision’.

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