Sinterklaas

A post for Christmas from poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Sinterklaas Kapoentje,
gooi wat in m’n schoentje,
gooi wat in m’n laarsje.
Dank u, Sinterklaasje.

Saint Nicholas, little capon,
Throw something in my little shoe
Throw something in my little boot.
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!

Textile by Julia Banks

A brief but interesting rhyme appropriate for the time of year. It’s tempting to render Sinterklaas as Santa Claus, but that probably takes him a step further away from the 4th century Greek bishop whose feast day on December 6th. That was when Dutch and other European children would traditionally leave their shoes out, in the hope that the kindly saint or his proxies would leave sweets, gingerbread and other goodies in them.

Mama Lisa’s World gives ‘kapoentje’ as ‘you rascal’, and is coy about it: ‘This is a very short song and the word ‘kapoentje’ is a very old word with its origin not necessarily being positive. Over time however, its meaning is believed to be more in the context of a nickname of sorts.’ In fact, if you take off the diminutive ending ‘-tje’ (the thing that in English turns John into [little] Johnny and pig into [little] piggy), you are left with ‘kapoen’, which simply means capon: a castrated cock fowl destined for the cooking pot. Maybe a disrespectful reference to the bishop’s clerical celibacy, but after all, ‘rascal’ was once freighted with much more disapproval than it is now.

Even before listening to the Dutch spoken by a translating tool, my eye was caught by ‘gooi wat’ – literally, ‘throw something’ – for which we have a perfect north-east English dialect equivalent in the verb ‘hoy’. And indeed, the initial sound of ‘gooi’ is soft and aspirated, like a throaty ‘h’. So ‘gooi wat in m’n schoentje’ might better be represented by ‘hoy summat in wor shoesies’.

But I’m a poet, I’m attracted to a lot of stuff that linguists and oral historians would strenuously disagree with or disapprove of – so do feel free to tell me I’m making up false cognates.

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2019!

 

In The Hague There Lives A Count
A, B, C, The Cat Comes With Me

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