Dutch Language Blog

Curious Dutch Words: Are You The Hostage Or Hostage Taker? Posted by on Aug 2, 2021 in Dutch Vocabulary

In Dutch, we have a pretty straightforward rule. If the word ends with -aar, that means that this person does whatever verb it is derived from: makelaar is a realtor (from makelen). An aarzelaar is a hesitator (from aarzelen). A handelaar is a trader (from handelen). A gijzelaar is a hostage (from gijzelen). But wait… gijzelen means to TAKE hostage. So wouldn’t a gijzelaar be a hostage taker instead of a hostage? What’s going on here?

Previous posts in this series:

Curious Words In Dutch

Oh, was ik maar een gijzelaar!

In the sketch above from Dutch sketch show de Sluipschutters, this strange conundrum leads to some confusion for the gijzelnemer. Below, I translated the important bit.


Jij gaat praten, vriend!

– Waarom?

Waarom, omdat dat gewoon zo is! Zo zijn de verhoudingen! Ik sla jou verrot, en dan ga jij dingetjes zeggen. Jij bent het slachtoffer, ik ben de gijzelaar.

– Nou… Dat laatste, dat klopt niet hoor. Ik ben de gijzelaar.

Ik heb jou gegijzeld. Dan ben ik de gijzelaar. Dat is toch logisch? Toch?

– Nee. Naja, je kent dat liedje toch wel?

Welk liedje?

– Eh. Oh, oh, was ik maar een gijzelaar. Dan stond altijd m’n eten klaar!

Jajajaja. Mike!

– Wat?!

Eh, hoe gaat dat eh, hoe ging dat liedje?

– Oh was ik maar een gijzelaar!

Oh was ik maar een gijzelaar! Hoe gaat dat verder?

– Dan stond altijd mijn eten klaar!

Dat meen je niet he?! Als jij de gijzelaar bent, en de gegijzelde. Wie ben ik dan?!

– Jij bent gijzelnemer.



You’re going to talk, my friend!

– Why?

Why, because that’s just how it is! That’s the situation! I’ll beat you up, and then you’re gonna say things. You’re the victim, I’m the gijzelaar (hostage).

– Well… That last one, that’s not right. I am the hostage.

I took you hostage. Then I’m the gijzelaar. That’s logical, right? Right?

– No. Well, you know that song, right?

Which song?

– Uh. Oh, oh, if only I were a gijzelaar. Then my food would always be ready!

Yeah yeah yeah yeah. Mike!

– What?!

Eh, how does that eh, how does that song go?

– Oh if only I were a hostage!

Oh if only I were a hostage! How does that continue?

– My food would always be ready!

You can’t be serious?! If you’re the gijzelaar, and the gegijzelde (hostage). Then who am I?!

– You are a gijzelnemer (hostage taker).


Here’s the song in question:

So why is a gijzelaar not actually one?

Curious Dutch Hostage Gijzelaar

Photo by niu niu on Unsplash

Well, as often with such exceptions, it’s simply how Dutch developed. OnzeTaal gives the following explanation. Gijzelaar comes from the Middelnederlandse (Middle-Dutch) gisel, which meant “hostage, pledge”. Later, it was often no longer seen as a reference to a person (as in Dutch, those words often end with -er: dokter, bakker, slager). So it became giseler/ghijseler. Over the years, this turned into gijzelaar! And so later, when we also had words like leraar, ambtenaar and bedelaargijzelaar was seen as derivative from the word gijzelen. But that’s not the case!

However, because this is such an exceptional case, many people use gijzelaar to mean gijzelnemer (hostage taker). This is so ingeburgerd (established), that even dictionaries list both meanings for the word gijzelaar – both hostage and hostage taker. That gijzelaar can refer to both the hostage and the person that took hostage is of course super confusing.

OnzeTaal therefore advises to completely go around the word gijzelaar and use gegijzelde (hostage) and gijzelnemer or gijzelhouder (hostage taker/keeper) instead.


Gijzelaar isn’t the only exceptions to the -aar rule, by the way. Others are martelaar (martyr, the one being tortured, not the torturer), rammelaar (rattle – it’s being rattled), dompelaar (immersion heater – it’s being immersed) and kittelaar (clitoris, “tickler”).

Oh, and lastly, the feminine ending for -aar is -ares: So leraar (male teacher), lerares (female teacher).

Have you confused these words before? Are there other curious and confusing Dutch words you know about? Let me know in the comments below!


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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.