The meaning of my Dutch surname and perspectives on Dutch immigrant culture
by Kendra Lachniet
My last name is Lachniet, from the Dutch, meaning “Laugh not.” I have always wondered about the significance of this. Were my ancestors somber, humorless party-poopers? Maybe they constantly engaged in clumsy or asinine behaviors that invoked them to plea with others to “laugh not!” Time to solve the mystery!
A little research resulted in my first meaningful encounter with Wikipedia. Under the topic of Dutch humor I found a possible answer. According to the entry, the Dutch were once known for their humor. Favorite themes included “deranged households, drunken clerics (mostly of the Roman Catholic Church), and people with mental and/or physical handicaps.” Wow. That’s embarrassing. But maybe my ancestors were known for reproaching these rude ignoramuses who made fun of people with disabilities, mental illness, and substance abuse problems! “Laugh not!” they probably responded. Then again…the entry states that in the 17th century my ancestors lost their sense of humor, largely because “the Dutch Reformed Church denounced laughter and advocated sober lifestyles” and that this attitude toward humor lasted into the 1960’s. So my people were probably pillars of the church community! And also party-poopers. ☹
My search led me to investigate a little more about the life of Dutch immigrants to understand if my ethnic heritage has influenced my family life or my own lifestyle. While I do not want to lend too much credence to stereotypes, I thought I should start with how others view the Dutch. (Please note that it’s important to distinguish between stereotypes of the Dutch and stereotypes of Dutch Americans; otherwise, you’ll find out we’re a bunch of bike-riding potheads with poor personal hygiene.) Of course, most pervasive are the images of the blond- haired, blue-eyed couple in their cute little wooden shoes chastely air-kissing, probably after a date in which each paid his and her own bill. Setting: a tulip field with a windmill in the distance. Well, I do have a windmill and tulips in my garden! But the Lachniet side of the family doesn’t exactly look Dutch. Brunettes with brown eyes dominate. In fact, a 1960’s shot of my grandparents with their kids is usually referenced by my cousins and me as the “mafia family photo.” The only wooden shoes I own are a pair of Dr. Scholl’s clogs from the 1970’s. I also lack a lace hat with “kissers” that look like wings spouting from the ears to keep the boys from smooching a girl on the cheek. The only thing I wear with wings is manufactured by Kotex, but probably would achieve the same goal if the boys knew I was wearing one in my onderbroek. How vies!
I always thought the word vies was an English word—feese. In the context that my family members used it, it seemed to mean the same as “gross” or “disgusting.” I wanted confirmation from a Dutch friend once I realized the origin. Willie said that those words did not really convey the high degree of revulsion expressed by the word, which is actually vies. Dutch Americans were also known for their cleanliness, so I guess that makes sense. I’m not sure about the men in the family, but the Lachniet women all seemed to have OCD when it came to cleaning. Even though we Lachniets have the annoying habit of dropping in on friends and relatives unannounced, I don’t remember ever walking into a messy home. In fact, I remember my mom scrubbing with ammonia, wiping down the panel walls in the basement with oil soap, and dusting all our little knickknacks weekly. Even the hamster cage got a regular scrubbing and smelled lovely despite Mickey’s attempts to defile his Habitrail. Pledge, ammonia, Murphy’s oil soap, and fresh cedar chips are the smells of my childhood.
Most stereotypes of the Dutch are complimentary. The Dutch are known for frugality. Okay, the phrase I hear most is “Hollanders are cheap.” But we’re also known for having a good work ethic. My family certainly embraces saving money by working for something. For example, my mom and grandma made most of my dolls’ clothing. No glamorous dresses with sequins for my Barbies! My dolls wore polyester pantsuits just like me.
Another way to save money was to pick our own fruit and vegetables. Many of my summer memories involve going out to various farms. Why pay someone to do a chore we could do ourselves? Our freezer contained frozen peaches, pears, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, applesauce, jams, green and yellow beans, and tomatoes, most of which we picked ourselves. Not being a big fan of most of these, my own philosophy was that I should not be forced to waste my summer days picking anything I didn’t like to eat or anything that wasn’t fun to pick. I could tolerate picking raspberries despite the prickly branches because I loved them. But while everyone else loved strawberries, I whined about how I should be exempt from the picking them or, at the very least, have a reduced quota because half my harvest wasn’t going directly to my mouth. Instead I had to pick them, and then was forced to eat them at dinnertime. Mom’s philosophy was that I would “learn to like them.” I never did. I guess the Dutch sense of “waste not, want not” did not allow for children not eating their fruits and veggies. Since I wanted not, seemed like me eating a share of what everyone else loved was a waste.
I liked picking apples the most. It involved climbing trees, one of my childhood passions. One especially memorable trip, our white toy poodle, Frosty, came along to the orchard. While we picked apples, Frosty found the corpse of some unfortunate critter and rolled himself around in the remains. Dad decided that, despite our protests, our rank little dog was too vies to ride in the car, so he dumped him in the trunk for the ride home. And thus my dad’s political aspirations were put to rest, leaving him only the option of saving our country by writing editorial essays! And I must admit his writing is not bad.
The Dutch are also known for avoiding superlatives. We don’t get too excited about anything. Everything is okay, fine, not bad, nice. Only God is awesome. Only His creation is breathtaking. We’re just not overly enthusiastic. We also tend towards avoiding touching, hugging, or openly showing affection. Our personal space is huge! My Dutch sensibilities were put to the test during my time in Paraguay where everything is ipora, or “fantastic,” where the double kiss is custom, where people stand way too close and touch entirely too much. And I wish I’d had some “kissers” for my sombrero in Paraguay, where the dirty old men somehow get confused about which way to turn the head for the traditional air-kiss, “accidentally” smooching women right on the lips. I’m really quite vies of kissing a viespeuk! (I wondered if there was a word in Dutch for dirty old man, and zo! The word is viespeuk.) What an appropriate word, combining vies with a word resembling the English word puke, which is what I wanted to do when kissed on the mouth by one. And since you’re now completely confused, the word zo! is Dutch for voilå! which is French for “well, lookie there!” LOL!
Like most children and grandchildren of immigrants I’m trying to ditch some of the Dutch ways while keeping the things I like. For example, I don’t clean unless something is clearly dirty, but I don’t wait until it’s vies either. I don’t dust knickknacks—they go in the dishwasher a couple times a year. I live far enough from my relatives to make it difficult for them to visit without notice, giving me a chance to clean my house to an acceptable level for company and spray enough surfaces with Pledge or Spic and Span to make it smell like I’ve been cleaning all day. I don’t pick my own fruit except the raspberries in my backyard. I don’t can or freeze anything. And I don’t eat strawberries unless they’re in a Poptart or a McDonald’s milkshake. I guess Mom was right; I learned to like them in some things! I used to sew, but I value my time too much, and several projects lie on the floor upstairs in various stages of production. Most of them will require some laundering to get the dust off if I ever finish them. Some Dutch traditions are quite engrained. I still don’t get too excited about things. If you ask how I am, the response is pretty consistent. “Not bad.” I don’t feel very comfortable with hugs and kisses even though my personal space has decreased after two years in touchy-kissy Paraguay. Finally, I hope my writing is evidence that I am not the somber “Laugh not” that inspired my name. If you made it through this entire essay while laughing-not, I stand corrected.
FYI: In Dutch, lol is a word (not an acronym) which, coincidentally, means "fun."