This article was written by Dr. Ruud Hisgen (Direct Dutch Institute) for I am Expat
Water, both zoet (sweet, fresh) and zout (salty), has always been a loyal companion and profoundly distrusted rival of the Dutch.
As a simultaneous friend and enemy of the people who inhabited the North Sea coast and riverland, water not only defined the landscape of the Netherlands, it also defined the language.
Here are seven words that can help you understand the struggles that the delta folk have had to wage in order to survive.
1. WAD (mudflat)
Wad is the earliest written word in the Dutch language. It was first written down in a Latinised form as vadam by an ancient Roman, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, in the fifth book of his “Histories” in the year 107 AD.
With vada or wada, Tacitus refers to a Batavian village which still exists as Wadenoijen, a village on the river Linge, in the province of Gelderland. A vada is a fordable or wadeable place in a river. The word also gave its name to the Waddenzee and the Wadden Islands.
2. TERP (mound)
Another Roman, called Pliny (23 to 79 AD), could not believe that people wanted to live in the cold and wet area that we now call the Netherlands. He writes in his “Natural History”:
“The waves of the ocean invade a vast area twice each day and night. It makes you wonder… does this region belong to the land, or to the sea? This is where a wretched Germanic race lives.
They either inhabit the more elevated spots of land, or they dwell on artificially constructed heights, called terpen (mounds). They know by experience that the highest tides will never reach the tops of these mounds, and so that’s where they build their dwellings.
Now imagine these people on their terps surrounded by waves far and wide: like sailors on a ship in a vast ocean. And when the tide recedes, they are like shipwrecked sailors hunting the fishes as they make their escape with the receding tide.”
3. VEEN (peat)
When the cities in medieval Holland started to grow and became wealthier, the city dwellers needed fuel. The vast moorlands offered a lot of it, so the Dutch exploited them by cutting peat, loads of peat, for centuries. They cut so much peat that the country became riddled with lakes.
Eventually there were so many lakes that safe and dry land became a rare commodity. In addition, the sea flooded the delta with disastrous results. Not just once, but many times. Something had to be done!
4. DIJK (dike)
Dikes were part of the solution. Is there a word that is “Dutcher” than dijk? I doubt it. Dutch and dijk (dike, dyke, bank, levee) go hand in hand.
The dijken can be found anywhere in the country and without them the sea and the rivers would just have free play.
If you cycle through the countryside and you see a canal on your right with a water level three metres lower than the ditch on your left, then most likely you are cycling along a dike.
5. POLDER (polder)
Dikes made it possible to stem the flow of water and reclaim land in polders at the same time. “But what is a polder exactly?” you ask. Diked in and drained low-lying land, that’s what a polder is.
“Well,” you may 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 over 4.000 polders.
6. MOLEN (mill)
The wind-powered polder mill was first used in 1407 at the Achtermeer south of Alkmaar. This ingenious invention made it possible to pump up larger quantities of water. By 1533 the first lake was drained and the first polder was a fact.
Ever since, huge stretches of land have been reclaimed. In 1750 there were around 8.000 active polder mills in the Netherlands and in 1850 around 10.000.
In the 19th century windmills were replaced by steam driven pumps, which were succeeded by electric and diesel-powered pumping stations. Today pumps keep a quarter of the Netherlands dry.
7. MOLENGANG (mill corridor)
In 1589 Delftenaar (Delft resident) Simon Stevin was granted a patent for his new invention called the molengang.
This is a system of mills in sequence, each pumping water up to a higher level. The lower mill pumps the water into the boezem (a drainage canal or pool) and a higher mill pumps it into the ringvaart (ring canal).
The most famous molengang is near the village of Kinderdijk 15 kilometres east of Rotterdam. It was built to drain the Alblasserwaard polder, a system of 19 windmills was built around 1740.
This very popular tourist site has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. You can see a smaller but equally picturesque molengang between Leidschendam and Stompwijk (from 1672).
Thanks to these pumps the Haarlemmermeer could be reclaimed in the 19th century. When you visit Schiphol remember that, instead of planes and runways, there used to be a large lake.