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  • Writer's pictureFrans Riemersma

10 words to travel 1,500 years and miles across the Frisian shores

Are these white letters on the wall encrypted gibberish to you? With learning a handful of keywords, you'll have deciphered them in no time. Even better, tens of thousands of town names will hold no longer any secrets for you. Each placename will reveal its unique story to you. You will make a great impression on your fellow citizens or travelers!

Source: Frans Riemersma, Lunhüs on Föhr.

These words reveal everything about the history of the place you are in. Regardless if you travel the Frisia Coast Trail or live along the trail, chances are high your location name reveals everything about the local history. Ready? Here we go.

1. Home or -um

Home is where the heart is”, Elvis Presley wrote in a song. That is no less true for the North Coast inhabitants. Their town names carry all sorts of variations of the word “home”. In German, it translates as “heim” and “holm”, ‘heem’ in Dutch, while in Frisian the word “hiem” is used. But in location names, it all comes down to one suffix: -um. Start counting, there are thousands of places ending with -um.

2. Terp, Warf

In his song Elvis continues: “I don't need a mansion on a hill. That overlooks the sea. Anywhere you're with me is home”. Well, this is where Frisians might be less romantic. They did want a “mansion overlooking the sea”. Their home was oftentimes a mound. This mount was called terp, tarp (in Frisian), torp or thorpe (in English), dorp (in Dutch), or dorf (in German). Another version of the word is: wierde, wierd, wiert, werd, ward, wart, werd, wert, werf, warf, warff, vaerft, etc.

Oftentimes these terps we located on a naturally elevated stretch of land, often situated in parallel to a river or current. In later stages, these terps were connected into dykes for better protection.

3. Kaag

The next step beyond dykes is to close a dike, around a marsh or lake and pump out the water using windmills. The result is called a polder (in Dutch). In the old days, the Frisian word for that was ‘Kaag’. Kaag was in Dutch (Frankish) called ‘Koog’.

4. Eye

In some cases, nature gave a helping hand by providing the elevated grounds in the form of an island. Island names come in many suffixes: Isle or island in English, Insel in German, eiland in Dutch. This suffix underwent many different variations. So keep an eye (pun intended) on words like eijer, auge, each, ooghe, hooghe, oog, ooge and oythe.

5. Horn

If you didn’t live on an island, kaag or terp, your ancestors were probably living in ‘da hood’. Just like Robin (of the) Hood. A hood refers to neighborhood, a certain geographical area or corner in the landscape. “Corner” translates often as hoorn, hern, herne, harns, hoanne, but also winkel in old place names.

6. Brook

The North Sea Coast was swamped with swamps. To make sure commuters did not end up to their necks in trouble (literally), swamps were given names. In Old English, Frisian, and German, place names these show up as brooke, broek, broeke, broeck.

7. Land

A bit less specific but often used is a word referring to “land”, like lant, landt, lân, lun, lün, lüün, luun, löön, lunn, etc. The inhabitants of Helgoland simply called their island: "iip lunn" (on the land).

8. Lutje

Another word in placenames that triggers confusion is the prefix lutje-. In Dutch, it resembles a word that means ‘silly'. But in fact, it is related to the English word “little”, “lyts” in Frisian, “lil” in Danish and comes in variations like lil, lutje, litje, luutje, lüütje, lutke, tuitje, etc.

9. Ni

The knights that say “ni” have nothing to do with this. It is just a very old word for the prefix “new”. It is an important word in the North Sea Coast as frequently land was (re)claimed from the sea, rivers, or lakes. This prefix comes in flavors like: nu, ni, nij, neu, nie, nieuw, naaie, etc.

10. Old

As a traveler you just had to be sure if you were heading for the old or new place. You would go by words as old, ald, alt, alde, olde, etc. One could easily mistake Aldegea for Nijega, or Aldehaske for Nijehaske. A mistake that can be a dozen of kilometers or a couple of centuries.

Using the Frisian Placename Blender

Let’s get creative and combine some of the seven words we just learned.

  • Broek in Waterland sounds hilarious for the Dutch as “broek” nowadays means “pants”, until you understand we’re talking about swamps.

  • Lutjebroek has nothing to do with ‘silly pants’, but with a ‘small swamp’

  • Lütje Hörn means ‘small hood/corner’

  • Lutje Lollum refers to the small home of Lolke

  • Minsereroog is the island close to Minser

  • Lütjenholm, small home.

  • Nijlân, literally ‘new land’, probably a polder.

  • Nieuwe Niedorp, the newest new village on earth. Period.

The landscape no longer holds any secrets for you. Happy travels!


Further reading

Versloot, A., De herbewoning van de Friese kwelders en terpnamen. Een onderzoek naar mogelijke verbanden (2021)


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