High time to ‘zwijg’ in Amsterdam


Here in Amsterdam, one of the places I like to visit is the Book Exchange.

It’s a second-hand bookshop with books in English, many of them fascinating historical works, and a fair number of paperback novels apparently abandoned by travellers who probably bought them at an airport before a flight to Amsterdam.

The Book Exchange is on a street called the Kloveniersburgwal, which in the early 1500s was on the outer southeastern boundary of the city, hence the “burgwal” designation, though there’s no actual wall.

The canal along which the street runs was deemed wall enough – as were two canal-streets behind the Kloveniersburgwal, on the inner-city side, the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and the Oudezijds Achterburgwal.

(“Oudezijds” indicates the “old side” of the city, as opposed to the Nieuwezijds on the western side – “old” or “new”, that is, for the 1500s.)

But what is a klovenier? Turns out the kloveniers were arquebusiers or musketeers, and they were allocated this strip of land for their barracks and so forth, positioned as a protective barrier on the southeast edge of the city.

The southernmost street of the strip is called Doelen, because that’s where the kloveniers had their targets – it was their practice range.

Somewhere in that area there also once stood a tower, a look-out post, that was nicknamed “Utrecht Zwijg” – translatable as “Shut up, Utrecht”. This was a form of soldiers’ humour. Travellers and traders from Utrecht, with which Amsterdam had something of a rivalry, would arrive in Amsterdam from the southeast, to be greeted by the tower telling them to be silent.

It makes one rather wish for a look-out post on the highway going north out of Johannesburg – and name it “Shut up, Pretoria”.

Unlike the Dutch zwijg (and Afrikaans swyg), English doesn’t have a single verb for “to be silent” – this seems an oversight.

The great Dutch leader of the later 1500s, who led his people in the revolt against imperial Spain and is considered the father of the nascent nation, William I of Orange, was given the epithet “de Zwijger”.

Willem de Zwijger is translated as William the Silent, though historians note that this should really be William the Taciturn, because it wasn’t as though he never ever spoke – he was simply a man of few words, and one who spoke those few words only after a great deal of listening.

It seems highly unlikely, today, that we’ll get any politicians we’d be happy to dub “de Zwijger”.

Taciturnity was at least good policy for Willem I: the prince is the ancestor of both the Dutch and the British royal families. Incidentally, he married four times, including a “love match” with a former nun, and had 16 children.

So now for a trip down Willem de Zwijgerlaan, which runs a fair distance through the western part of Amsterdam. One can stop for a bite at Bagels & Beans, about halfway along the laan, and for something to smoke at a “coffee shop” called High Time. Probably a good place to be silent.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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