High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Everyone in the Low Countries Knows 'Fat Van Dale'
The L-Spot

Everyone in the Low Countries Knows 'Fat Van Dale'


There have been many dictionaries of the Dutch language, but the dictionary compiled by Johan Hendrik van Dale is considered the best. Known as ‘De Dikke Van Dale’, or Fat Van Dale, it was the creation of a schoolteacher and archivist born in 1828 in the Dutch border town of Sluis.

When the Dutch government decided to create a New Dictionary of the Dutch Language in 1851, Van Dale was approached to take on the project. He worked on this ambitious project along with one of his students, but died in 1874 at the age of 44 before it was completed. When it was finally published, the massive 1,400-page dictionary was named after Van Dale.

The dictionary has gone through many editions, and added countless new words. Every new edition, reviewers carefully scan ‘De Nieuwe Dikke Van Dale’ – the New Fat Van Dale – to find out what terms have been added.

And every year, in a competition organised by Van Dale Uitgevers and Genootschap Onze Taal (Society for Our Language), a new entry is picked as ‘Dutch word of the year.’ Dutch and Flemish people choose their own favourite words. In the Netherlands, it was selfie in 2013, ontvrienden (unfriending) in 2009 and dagobertducktaks (a tax on the rich, named after a Disney cartoon duck famous for his greed).

The word of the year has developed into a marker of social change in the Netherlands and Flanders, with sjoemelsoftware (cheating software) emerging in 2015 following a car emissions scandal and anderhalvemetersamenleving (one-and-a-half metre society) topping the list in 2020 as a result of social distancing rules.

A bronze bust of Van Dale was unveiled in 1924 on the Sluis waterfront. He looks very much like a serious, sensible schoolteacher. Hardly the sort of person who would have approved of Van Dale’s 2008 word of the year – swaffelen (to hit one’s penis, often repeatedly, against an object or another person’s body).

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