Practical Dutch: a brief guide to undergarments

Practical Dutch: a brief guide to undergarments

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UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, talks about languages and cultures, helping you to expand your knowledge of Dutch vocabulary and grammar through examples.

When you are learning the language of a country you have moved to, necessity is the best motivator. Often the words and phrases that stick are the ones you need to negotiate practical situations.

Say, for example, you are on your way to an appointment and you snag your tights while getting off the tram; or your washing machine is broken and you are running dangerously short on clean underwear. In both these situations, your first port of call may well be that trusty haven of cheap but well-designed practicality that is the HEMA.

Shopping for panty’s

Anyone familiar with the differences between American and British English will know about the great translatlantic confusion over the word "pants".

Well, the Dutch language has some tricks up its sleeve too when it comes to the names of undergarments. Over the years it has borrowed words from other languages and tweaked them a little. It also includes words that may seem familiar on the surface but refer to different items than you might think.

Of course, the Dutch are famed for their language skills, and HEMA staff are no exception to this rule. Despite this, asking them where the "tights" are may initially get you some blank looks. Using the American term, "pantyhose", may be more succesful. To get the quickest response, though, the word to use is panty (1 panty, 2 panty’s).

Origins of the panty

The Van Dale dictionary of Dutch language lists the first mention for the word panty as dating from 1973. Clearly it is an adaptation of the American word, as that is where this convenient form of legwear was invented.

Perhaps the basis for this North American association was laid just after WWII, when GIs from Canada and the States brought over what was then the latest in hosiery technology: the highly desirable nylons, which were like gold dust.

All this talk of hosiery does not mean the gentleman's department is a safe bet, however, as the world of men's undergarments is equally confusing.

What's in a name?

For example, another potential source of international confusion is the word "vest". In the UK, it refers to an undergarment - a string vest for example. In American English, this kind of singlet garment is known as a "tank-top", while "vest" refers to a waistcoat or a knitted sweater vest.

Here, the Dutch language throws an extra curveball: what is known as a vest here is an item of clothing commonly called a cardigan in English. Confused yet?

Thankfully, boxers are easier to recognise - just ask for a boxer or boxershort. As in the case of the panty, the plural form has been simplified into a singular word.

Slippery language

And what do you see when you think of the word "slip"? An underskirt or dress? Not in the Netherlands, where it refers to briefs, and you can get a herenslip or a damesslip.

I think the reason that these kinds of words are so slippery is that they are the opposite of abstract terms: they are words that are used in a practical, local context and associated with everyday life. If you haven’t ever bought or worn a certain, quite specific item of clothing in a new country, you probably won’t know the word for it.

Pants, slips and shifting meanings

As I already mentioned, this can result in variations within languages that are spoken in different parts of the world: just think of the shifting meanings of 'pants' in English, and the different words for foodstuffs you find in different Spanish-speaking countries.

This is why simple, everyday activities like going to the shops can be excellent learning experiences for any language learner, whatever your age (just think of toddlers pointing out items in the supermarket). Since exchanges with shopping assistants usually follow predictable patterns, they also offer a good opportunity to start interacting with people in Dutch.

Get the shopping lingo

So, even if you're a beginner, don’t be daunted by the confusing world of underwear terminology. Next time you’re in a shop like the HEMA, observe the kinds of set phrases people use when paying for their sokken and panty’s and try to make them your own.

Before you know it you'll be talking about slips and beha's like a natural. If you stay here long enough you may find yourself forgetting what these things were even called in your home language!

Sarah Welling works for UvA Talen. Their courses are geared toward educated professionals who can benefit from a rapid learning curve. For more information, please comment below or visit their website.

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Sarah Welling


Sarah Welling

I am half Dutch and half English and work as an editor and translator. I am fascinated by the subtle and less subtle ways in which my two languages and...

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