“Een boterham, alsjeblieft!”

I’ve been busy  the last few days, but I just want to share a quick thought about an interesting Dutch word I learned back at the beginning of my grand Duolingo (my brain always wants to call it Duolinguo) experiment. This word is…

boterham

I’ll give you a moment to try to figure out what it means. You could make a fair guess based on how it looks. Yes, it means sandwich. Which may or may not seem obvious, depending on how your brain works. As soon as I discovered it meant sandwich (by being presented with a picture of a sandwich with the word boterham underneath [as well as three other objects with their Dutch names], and being asked to identify the sandwich, so I didn’t have a chance to guess what the word might mean), I was curious. Unlike most of the simple Dutch nouns I’d learned up to then, it didn’t look English. Or did it?…

I began to think about it. It had the look of a compound noun, with two fairly distinct parts: boter and ham. And those don’t just resemble two English words, but two very sandwichy English words: butter and ham. So I did some quick googling and discovered that yes, boter and ham are indeed the Dutch words for butter and ham. And I was quite pleased. This is the kind of etymological story I’m always fond of. And there’s something really cute and simultaneously logical about calling a sandwich, effectively, a butterham.

It was only today, a few weeks later, when the following thought struck me: what do you call a butter and ham sandwich in Dutch!? This led me to some more googling, and more surprises. First, that boterham is generally used to refer to a single buttered slice of bread. Which is something the Dutch apparently eat surprisingly often. Or at least with one ingredient added to jazz it up. And if that ingredient is ham, they call it een boterham met ham. But that’s not really a sandwich, is it? What we would consider a sandwich, is usually called a broodje in Dutch. Or sandwich, as it seems that the standard name for a butter and ham sandwich is een boter en ham sandwich. I knew I’d bring it back round to English eventually. I wonder how John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, would feel if he could see how widespread the word sandwich has become, being used in a lot of different languages.

Oh, and there’s no strong evidence that the ham in boterham refers to ham, but come on, it’s too good a name for it not to be true!

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