Leafing through the little red ‘Dictionary of Dutchness’ brought back one of my few pre-teen memories: wrestling with an acronym. Cormac Mac Ruairi presents A Dictionary of Dutchness.
I remember at the age of about seven staring out the back window of a family car at a curious redbrick building in the centre of Dublin. The building itself was rather rundown; what made it stand out for me was the large sign over the front door: N.A.T.O. I was both fascinated and perplexed. How was it possible – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is an international military alliance and Ireland was and is officially neutral. And worse, there were no cool soldiers, tanks or anything like that around the building. It was some years later that I found out that N.A.T.O. also stood for National Association of Tenants Organisations. Hardly a match for the Warsaw Pact.
After that, I never really trusted acronyms and the short-hand jargon that only people ‘in the know’ understand. As a journalist I learned to spell things out in full and life was good.
Moving to the Netherlands in the late 1990s was the best decision of my life, but unfortunately jargon got here first and is firmly entrenched. Dutch journalists seem to be paid based on the number unexplained acronyms and abbreviations used in each article. The government is the main culprit. The housing and environment ministry refers to itself as ‘VROM’, while the ministry of social affairs and employment (SZW to its friends) deserves a special mention for replacing the much-maligned WAO (workers disability scheme) with the upbeat WIA (Wet werk en inkomen naar arbeidsvermogen).
Fortunately, a book was published at the beginning of this decade that helped newcomers navigate through this maze of Dutch jargon. Appropriately named ‘Alphabet Soup’, it contained short – often witty – articles written by the English-language staff of newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad about the concepts and jargon that made Dutch news impenetrable for the uninitiated. I used the book frequently in the first few years here and it retains a special place in my bookcase. Sadly, I think it is out-of-print. So I was glad to hear that Robin Pascoe and Abi Daruvalla – journalists who worked for the FD and contributed to Alphabet Soup – are the authors of ‘A Dictionary of Dutchness – From ATV to ZZP’er’.
The entries in the Dictionary are drawn from news columns published on the DutchNews website and newsletter, which Pascoe and Daruvalla launched last year. The authors state clearly that the handy pocket-sized booklet doesn’t contain all the official jargon new expats have to grapple with, such as sofinummer (tax number). That’s the sort of thing you can get in the Survival Guide or a similar expat publication. The Dictionary goes deeper than that and shines a light on how the Dutch think, and in the opinion of Gary Hays, HR manager at Royal Dutch Shell, ‘begin the journey of understanding the Dutch psyche’. The first entry, for instance, explains that ABN stands for Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands, the official form of Dutch, which years ago was a requirement to advance socially in the Netherlands. ABN – like the bank – is becoming less and less relevant. Otherwise how could crazy-haired Geert Wilders with his strong Limburg accent have made it so big. That last bit is mine own and doesn’t come from the Dictionary.
Curiously, the introduction to the Dictionary is penned by Greg Shapiro, Boom Chicago co-founder, all-round funny man and more lately TV funny guy (see CCN – Comedy Central News). The witty intro contracts sharply with the dictionary entries which are factual and straight forward.
I am glad Daruvalla and Pascoe have written a Dictionary and not a joke book about the Netherlands. Leave it to professionals – like Greg – to gently lob humorous hand grenades at the absurdities of the Dutch life and language. Instead, the ‘Dictionary of Dutchness’ is packed with concise background information on 200 concepts, which if mastered, will help the reader begin to see life here may be different but it is not totally alien and absurd. In fact, there is a certain method to it all.
For instance, a ‘Bob’ is neither your uncle nor a unit of money in the Netherlands. Rather it is, as the Dictionary explains, the name used in a successful Belgian road safety campaign – and borrowed for the Dutch equivalent – for the designated driver on a night out. It doesn’t take long for newcomers to discover that the CBS – rather like the know-it-all habitual drunk that can be found it most of local cafes and bars the world over – is endlessly spewing out apparently random statistics and reports on everything from the level of the country’s export and imports to number of the number of vehicles on the roads and the percentage of householders who give their door key to someone to look after pets and plants while they are on holiday. (In case you are wondering – 13 percent.)
The media is often guilty of gobbling up these statistical morsels without comment and regurgitating them wholesale. It was news to me, though, that Statistics Netherlands also produces custom-made reports for businesses, and other national and international groups who have a real need for that sort of thing. On the down-side expat parents may want to lock up their teenage daughters once they have read about ‘lover boys’ and newly arrived squatters should read about the ‘ME’ – they are not like you; they are riot police who spend a lot of their time clearing squats.
If you get a job in the Netherlands as a teacher or a taxi driver you might need a ‘VOG’ or a certificate of good behaviour (see page 87 of the book).
If I had been charged with writing the Dictionary (and I knew where to start) I might have added some definitions and excluded others. I might, for instance, have left out the KNHB (page 47). Then again I didn’t know the Dutch hockey association has 185,000 members. Okay, the Dictionary of Dutchness has passed the test for me and has taken its place on my book shelf, next to Alphabet Soup. I have no doubt that I will continue to consult both in the years ahead.
I also added the Dictionary to my list of potential Christmas presents for expat friends. And who knows, you might receive it in your kerstpakket from your employer (see page 45).
Dictionary of Dutchness
From ATV to ZZP’er
Price: € 14 (including postage and packaging in the Netherlands)
The Dictionary is a work in progress. You are invited to send acronyms or abbreviations that were not included but need explaining to firstname.lastname@example.org. If the suggestion(s) are used, you will get a name check in volume two.
Come up with your own witty and original explanation for a Dutch acronym or abbreviation and win a free copy of the Dictionary (3 copies). The results will be published on Expatica and Dutchnews. Entrants – don’t forget to include your contact details.
13 November 2007