Category Archives: new and old words

pons asinorum

man and donkey on bridge

Part of Man and donkey on bridge (1813­–33) by Andreas Schelfhout. Print held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Public domain.

WordPress has introduced a monthly word prompt that bloggers may use as a starting block for a new blog post. I’ve been lacking the time to get inspired to write, so I thought I’d give it a go. This month’s word prompt is ‘bridge’.

While I was looking at old paintings of bridges for inspiration, the Dutch word ezelsbrug, literally ‘bridge of donkeys’, sprang to mind. It means ‘mnemonic’, so Dutch speakers learn both the word and the concept from a young age at school, but I suddenly realised that I didn’t know anything about its etymology. A quick search taught me that it was a loan translation from the Latin phrase pons asinorum, also literally ‘bridge of donkeys’. According to a Dutch online etymological dictionary, the phrase originates from Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 68), who describes female donkeys refusing to cross a bridge if they can see the water below it shimmering through the planks.

I didn’t know that English had borrowed the Latin phrase and its translation, ‘bridge of asses’, because it is so little used in English. The reason for this is probably that the meaning is different in English. Apart from specific meanings relating to logic and geometry, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a more common figurative meaning of the phrase as ‘an obstacle or problem which will defeat an unskilled or foolish person’. Lexico explains it as ‘the point at which many learners fail, especially a theory or formula that is difficult to grasp’.

What interests me about both the Latin phrase and its translations into other languages is that, although the original bridge is a problem that the donkeys have to be led across, the Latin phrase and its translations are used for either a problem (for example, in English) or a solution to a problem (for example, in Dutch).

A very timely ezelsbrug, or mnemonic, is ‘Spring forward, fall back’.


painting of a boy blowing a soap bubble

Boy blowing bubbles (1867) by Édouard Manet. Painting held in the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal. Public domain.

border bubble,
bubble buddy,
buddy bubble,
corona bubble,
coronavirus bubble,
covid bubble,
double bubble,
germ bubble,
lockdown bubble,
postcode bubble,
social bubble,
support bubble,
travel bubble …


wild hamster with full cheeks

Wild hamster with full cheeks. Photograph © Julian Rad. Reproduced with permission.

A while ago, my mother asked me in a text message if it was true that Australians were hoarding toilet paper. My mother writes to me in Dutch, so she called it hamsteren.

The Dutch verb hamsteren was borrowed from German during rationing in 1917. In German, the verb hamstern was derived from — you guessed it — the noun Hamster, for the cute little rodent that is known to store food in its cheek pouches. Both Dutch and English had already borrowed the noun hamster from German, respectively in c. 1599 and c. 1607. Unlike English, Dutch has been creative with this noun and turned it into hamsteraar for ‘hoarder’ and hamsterwoede (literally, ‘hamster fury’) for ‘hoarding frenzy’. Unlike English and Dutch, which use hoarding and hamsteren both for the actual act of hoarding and for the act of buying things that are then hoarded, German seems to use hamstern for the former and Hamsterkäufe machen (literally, ‘making purchases for hoarding’) for the latter.

English-speaking media refer to the current hoarding frenzy as ‘stockpiling’. Not very poetic. Wish they would use ‘squirrelling’ …