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The Dutch language of flowers

Written by Ruud Hisgen for I am Expat

It is spring (or lente, as the Dutch say) and the flowers are in full bloom. Tourists from all over the world travel to the Netherlands to see the seven million tulips in the Keukenhof in Lisse and take selfies with them in the background. But you can travel anywhere in South and North Holland to see the flowers, as they are all over the place.

For most Dutch people, these flowers are nothing special, just like cheese and herring or the cows, grass and mills in the polders. Yet, flowers play a significant role in Dutch culture and in the language. So, here are five “flowery” phrases which will help you with your Dutch conversations and language skills.

1. Bedankt voor de bloemen uit Holland (Thanks for the flowers from Holland)

These historical words were spoken by Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) for the first time at Easter in 1989, after he had given the Urbi et Orbi blessing at noon from the central loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He continued this tradition until his death. Why? Well, since 1986, Dutch flower bulb growers have donated thousands of flowers to this celebration every year: 15.000 tulips, 2.000 narcissuses, 3.000 hyacinths, 9.000 loose flowers and twenty trees.

Each year, millions of Dutch people watch the broadcast with bated breath to see if the Pope will repeat these winged words. So far, the present pope, Pope Francis (1936), has thanked the Dutch only in Italian, but maybe this year… We’ll see.

2. Zeg het met bloemen (Say it with flowers)

Originally, this was an old publicity slogan from the United States. It was launched in the Netherlands on Valentine’s Day in 1959 by the organisation of flower sellers. This fact has been forgotten, however, and now the phrase has been integrated into the language as an expression which the Dutch take very, very seriously.

The Dutch make each other happy by giving each other flowers. They give flowers when they introduce themselves to new neighbours, go to a birthday, visit a patient, attend a marriage, go on a blind date, surprise a loved one on Valentine’s Day, go to dinner at someone’s place, or just for the fun, for no reason. Flowers also show concern and respect at commemorations and funerals. And there is no better way to say that you are sorry than by expressing it with a modest bouquet.

3. De fleurige taal van de bloemen (The colourful language of flowers)

The Dutch language of flowers, like music, is international. Red roses express love and passion. White roses stand for virtue and yellow roses express friendship. The crocus symbolises spring, new life and happiness, whilst the lily conveys innocence and purity. And tulips can have various meanings according to their colour:

  • Red = love
  • White = forgiveness and respect
  • Orange = patriotism and enthusiasm
  • Yellow = sunshine, energy, merriment
  • Pink = elegance, friendship, success
  • Purple = royalty, spirituality

4. Naar de bollen, naar die prachtige bollen (Let’s go to the bulb fields, those magnificent bulb fields)

Originally these lines by songwriter Jacques van Tol (1897-1969) were performed by cabaret artist Louis Davids (1883-1939) in 1936 to popular acclaim. Many Dutch people still sing along to this funny song in which a family “enjoys” their yearly outing to the tulip fields near Hillegom. It is not all roses all the way, as you can imagine, and the song expresses the highs of the flowery and fragrant sights and the lows of the domestic irritations during this tour.

Naar de bollen / Naar die prachtige bollen / Waar je sprakeloos geniet / Van de kleuren, die je ziet / Naar de bollen / Die heerlijke bollen / Want die zie je maar eenmaal in het jaar.

To the bulb fields / To the magnificent bulb fields / Where one can enjoy speechlessly / The colours that you see / To the bulb fields / To the delicious bulb fields / For you can see them only once a year.

Dan zegt Moe: ‘Pa, de bloemenvelden maggen we niet missen’, / Maar Pa bromt: ‘Ik ga vissen, / Wat zie je aan zo’n blom!’ / Na enige discussie komt er een echtelijke wrijving / Ma wenst hemeen verstijving, Of ‘n tamelijk dik gezwel

Mom says: “Dad, we should not miss the flowerfields”, / But Dad grumbles: “I’m going fishing, / What’s so special about such a flower!” / After some discussion there is a domestic quarrel / Mom wishes him a disease, or a rather thick lump…’

Bollen (bulbs), as you must have gathered, is another word for flowers. To some, they are the height of delight, to others a source of boredom. A thing of beauty can be a sorrow forever. Some things will never change. Life’s a game of give and take. So, naar de bollen… What’s new on the domestic front?

5. Bloemenzee (Sea of flowers)

If you love flowers, you’re lucky, because you’ll be in paradise when you are in the Netherlands. From spring to autumn, you can enjoy several Bloemencorso’s (flower parades) here. The annual Flower Parade in April is the largest and it consists of twenty huge floats and thirty beautifully decorated cars which follow a 42-kilometre route from Noordwijk to Haarlem, passing the Keukenhof.

Every summer, you can also watch the Flower Parade in Rijnsburg, and in autumn there are parades in Lichtenvoorde and Zundert.

Don’t forget to bring some flowers!

In conclusion: when you’re invited to someone’s house “Breng een bloemetje mee“. This does not mean that you should bring a little flower (bloemetje) with you. No, the Dutch mean a bouquet of flowers. And it’s up to your creativity to decide which flowers will suit the occasion. If in doubt, ask a Dutch person. Good luck. Speak Dutch. Zeg het met bloemen! Say: “Hier is een bloemetje! Veel plezier!

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