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Untranslatable Dutch: Moetje Posted by on May 13, 2021 in Culture, Dutch Vocabulary, Slang

Welcome to a new post of Untranslatable Dutch. Here’s a word that I heard first from my oma (grandmother). This means that it may not be that relevant or useful anymore, but it’s nonetheless interesting! She told me what a moetje is – a “little have to”. Come again? Let me explain.

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We HAVE TO Get Married!

moetje untranslatable dutch marriage wedding

Photo by Cinematic Imagery on Unsplash

You know back in the day, when a huwelijk (marriage) had quite a different status? Back when a woman’s status was elevated once she was married, she could lose her job. The current situation, where this traditional division is no longer that relevant, was hard fought for. It has implications on language, too.

But back then, the Netherlands that my oma grew up in, gave a huwelijk more weight. There was not just the legal side and the promise. It was also expected that children only followed after marriage, not before – that was improper.

So… What if you got pregnant but weren’t married yet? Back in those days, getting pregnant meant that you needed a husband that could provide for both his wife and the child, as the woman took care of the household. So getting pregnant without a husband wasn’t just bad news in the eyes of the people, but also your wallet.

There’s an inevitable conclusion then: The expecting parents have to get married! It’s a moetje!

If you want to use it with a verb, you can say: een moetje touwen (to tie a little you-have-to).

Due to the forced nature of such a marriage, which both mother and father may not want, a moetje is quite the euphemism. Using the diminutive here, something the Dutch do all the time, makes it seem like it’s not a big deal.

But it is, of course! The casual nature of this term may also come from how widespread such moetjes were. It’s estimated that in the 1960s, a quarter of Dutch women were already pregnant at the time of marriage. In some parts of the country, this percentage went as high as 90%!

With the development of anticonceptiepillen (anti-conception pills), moetjes also became less common. A changing culture also meant that the forceful nature of marriage when pregnant diminished; therefore, referring to a wedding as a moetje these days will probably get you some confused looks. Ouderen (the elderly) probably know what you’re talking about, though!

Is there an English equivalent?

Untranslatable Dutch Moetje Wedding Shotgun

Photo by William Isted on Unsplash

It seems that there actually is a pretty apt English equivalent: a shotgun wedding!

And while these days, the terms are equivalent, a shotgun wedding had quite a different implication than a moetje – according to the stereotype, the father of the bride threatens the groom with a shotgun to make sure that he’ll tie the knot! A lot more forceful and violent than the Dutch “brushing over” of this practice.

However, this is a translation is mostly North American. The United Kingdom seems to refer to it as a knobstick wedding. This refers to the staves that the church wardens carried, who attended the wedding to make sure that the wedding ceremony took place.

Have you heard of these terms before? Do you have other translations? How do you call a moetje in your language? 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.


Comments:

  1. Elspeth Parris:

    I’m in the UK and I would call it a ‘shotgun wedding’, never heard of knobsticks.


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