Monday, 4 August 2008

novel experience

the writing on the wall

It's not unusual for me to receive compliments on my English (which feels nice, but I'm not fishing, thanks) but to be honest I still learn new words and expressions almost every day, I feel in no way accomplished. In Dutch, it doesn't happen all that often.

On Friday I bought two books at the station, Het Verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) by the recently deceased Hugo Claus - which I just felt I had to mention but has no relevance to this story - and Maerlants Wereld, the comprehensive sketch of the world and life of Jacob van Maerlant, arguably the first and best, but certainly the most prolific, Dutch language Mediaeval poet, by Frits van Oostrom.

LelievletThe latter almost stumped me today with the word "klapgijp", a nautical term that I didn't recognise at first. I do know what it means, however, and have even experienced a few as a Sea Scout. It's quite a dangerous thing to happen but there doesn't seem to be a separate word for it in English. A klapgijp is an uncontrolled jibe which occurs when one is sailing and the mainsail suddenly catches wind from the other side, causing the boom to swing across from side to side unexpectedly.

However just when I thought I had avoided that obstacle Van Oostrom tripped me up within the same paragraph as the klapgijp with the word "menetekel". If you're any kind of judge of character you'll have understood I can't stand not knowing the meaning of word, so I (eventually) found its meaning in the German wikipedia, it's - literally - the writing on the wall, because both these expressions are derived from the same part in the Book of Daniel. As Wikipedia tells us:

during a drunken feast, King Belshazzar of Babylon takes sacred golden and silver vessels, which had been removed from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Using these holy items, the King and his court praise 'the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone'. Immediately, the disembodied fingers of a human hand appear and write on the wall of the royal palace the words מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin).

When none of his scholars can decipher the writing on the wall, Daniel translates:

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; PARSIN, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

Daniel's interpretation is based on divisions of currency, Mene, Tekel and Parsin are all Aramaic names for currency, which can also have another meaning:
  • Mene is literally a "monetary toll".
  • Tekel is literally a "tokenary weight"
  • Parsin is literally a "division" or "portion"
All this reminded me somehow of David's Yiddish lessons and yes, I'm aware that I'm juggling quite a few languages here. I managed to use the latest one, zaftig, in a sentence, this week. When K. said I needed to lose a few more pounds but that I should stay Rubenesque, I corrected him and said I wanted to be zaftig. (This caused some confusion with a guest, who assumed at least one of us had to be Jewish to be having that conversation.)

The picture at the top of this post is Rembrandt's 1635 work Belshazzar's Feast.

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