All baggage is lost

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I'm on a train in Holland, travelling from Amsterdam to Nijmegen for a lecture I have to give at the Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Arriving at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport is wonderful, not just because you can walk in a few minutes from the gate along the concourse to your train, but because you can actually buy the train tickets from a flawlessly interfaced automatic machine located inside the baggage hall. I strolled over to buy my ticket to Nijmegen while waiting for the bags off my flight from Edinburgh to show up. However, when I got back to carousel number 9, the area around it was deserted. Everyone had gone. The conveyor belt was still going round, but it was empty. And on the screen above it was a sign that appeared to convey the most disappointing news imaginable:

Alle bagage is gelost.

Oh, no! All of it, lost and gone to who knows where! For a few seconds I felt that this visit was going to start with a major disappointment, and a highly inconvenient hour of claiming for mislaid baggage.

But one must be careful of false friends when translating verbs between closely related languages. It is true that ge- is a past participle prefix (as it was in Old English), and that lost is the main part of the verb form. But luckily, in Dutch gelost does not mean "lost". The sign was saying "All baggage is unloaded." The los- bit should be thought of here as suggesting the root of the English verb and adjective loose (as in "set something loose") rather than the verb lose (though as Björn Lindström pointed out in a comment after seeing the first version of this, the two are in fact distantly related to each other).

Oh, the pleasures of knowing even a little tiny bit about a foreign language! Nothing was wrong. I turned my gaze back to the slowly circulating belt, and after another half a minute or so, my bag, the only one that hadn't already been collected, completed its full circle and pushed through the hanging strips again. I grabbed it, and within three minutes I was on the platform watching the 12:55 slow train roll out as the second hand approached the top of the clock (12:55 is the time you need to be there: at 12:55:58 the doors closed and it began to move). Three minutes after that I was on the 13:00 Intercity, which began to roll out at 13:00:58. I adjusted the time on my watch by it — you really can trust the train times in Holland. And the airport baggage handling too. Punctually gelost, but not lost.


  1. SuperBabe said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:48 am

    I am a lurker here… and I thought it was funny that you're going to Nijmegen, considering I was there late last week for a doctoral defense! And yes, the Dutch are very punctual when it comes to their trains! (I'm in Germany, so have been using the ge-butchered verb for my participles :P) Enjoy your trip!

  2. Aleksei said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 8:17 am

    I think you were quite lucky with the trains. Delays are actually quite common here in the Netherlands… Although it isn't too bad, there's no reason to complain.
    But it's interesting that trains coming in late have become so much of a taboo (a lot of people have been complaining about it) that the railway company uses euphemisms when announcing delays. The old announcement was along the lines of "train X is Y minutes late", the new one is "train X will arrive in Y minutes", even when this is not true (e.g. when the delay is announced 5 minutes before the train is scheduled to arrive, and the train is going to arrive 10 minutes late, the announcement says that the train will arrive in 10 minutes, instead of 15 minutes).

  3. jfruh said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Can I say how much I love the "ge-" prefix? An ex of mine was the daughter of a German woman who had moved to the US when she (the mother) was in her early 20s; my ex would sometimes talk to her mother in German, to keep them both in shape with it, and once her mother, describing her day but forgetting a bit of vocabulary, said she had "gevacuumed." I found that infinitely charming, for some reason.

  4. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Just a correction: a scheduled departure of 12:55 means that the train should leave at 12:55:00, and should close its doors at about 12:54:50, so the two trains were both a minute late.

    (Which means they were officially on time, as only delays of more than 3 minutes count.)

  5. Bobbie said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    The Japanese trains are also wonderfully punctual. At least they were when I visited there about 9 years ago. Thank goodness the signs were in at least two languages (Japanese and English) because I would not have understood anything in Japanese! And you can understand the announcements about the trains (so I have been told), as opposed to American train announcers whose voices are always distorted or muffled.

  6. Jim said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    Back when there was a significant US military community in Germany the -ge prefix was used for comic effect. Things would be "geFUBARed" or "upgefucked". It is similar to the way Korean – da used to be added to the ends of expresions and has passed into GI slang – "No sweaty da."

  7. Boris said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Amtrak should take a page from NJ transit and automate their announcements:

    Ding Ding
    Attention [pause] Metropark passengers. The [pause] Five [pause] twenty-five train to [pause] Trenton is operating five [pause] to [pause] ten [pause] minutes late. We apologize for the inconvenience.
    (four phone-dial type sounds)

    Of course, there are occasionally errors that announce a train's delay for all stations consecutively. (Attention Metuchen passengers. The Five Thirty train . . . Attention Edison passengers. The Five Thirty-four train. . .)

  8. Robert Coren said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    i am irresistibly reminded of a sentence from a textbook used in my 8th-grade English class — I guess it was a sort of "preliminary linguistics for 8th-graders" text — illustrating the kind of thing that happened in Pennsylvania German (which the book carefully explained was not "Dutch"):

    Die Kuh is ivver die Fence gejumpt und das Graut gedamaged.

    This made a sufficient impression on me that I have remembered it for nearly 50 years, even though the title and author of the book are long gone.

  9. DrNI@CLB said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Actually in German there's the word "gelöst" (from the verb "lösen") which doesn't carry over to Dutch directly but feels very close. "Lösen" can denote a quite large number of concepts, just check a dictionary like this one:

  10. Richard said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    Well, it all depends what you mean by arrive at Schiphol … on the various occasions I've had the fortune to be flying into that otherwise wonderful airport (having a small but perfectly formed art gallery on site is very classy), the ecstatic (and otherwise normally rare) experience of landing on the ground apparently well ahead of time has turned to dismay during the longest trundle on the ground from runway to air terminal that I know of, and the journey the other way is not necessarily better. I know that there are very sound reasons for the distance (the position of that runway reduces the number of flights over populated areas to limit both noise and risk), but even so, there's something frustrating at sitting in a plane on the ground even if the plane is moving.

    At most British airports there isn't much distance to cover between take-off or landing point and terminal, so instead the powers-that-be seem to have devised a complicated traffic management system that ensures that aircraft on the ground have to wait in a queue before being cleared to move those few yards. Oh, and then for arriving flights they take for ever to unload the baggage: maybe statistics for actual flight times should reflect the time taken from the first passenger boarding to the last bag reaching the carousel? Perhaps that would concentrate a few minds! I really like the unassuming but justified confidence of the Dutch statement with its universal quantifier alle and not just punctuality but perfectivity: something to aspire to in the UK, methinks.)

  11. Bill Poser said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 12:22 am

    Another Dutch word that can lead to this sort of confusion is fietser, which looks like it ought to mean "pedestrian" but in fact means "bicyclist".

  12. Jelle said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    As far as I know, the screens above the carousels at Schiphol show all the information also in English, so they keep flipping from 'Alle bagage is gelost' to 'All bagage unloaded' :) But you might not have noticed that in your seconds of panick of course ;) or left it out for the sake of the story :)

  13. Robert F said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    I only found out loose could be a verb when I started learning ancient Greek. The Greek luein of course finds its way mysteriously into all sorts of technical vocabulary, such as electrolysis, loosing with amber.

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    asimov had an anecdote in one of his books about a jew fresh off the boat from eastern europe, wandering around brooklyn, seeing a sign in hebrew script in a window saying (transliterated here obviously) "vindows gevasht" and being utterly defeated in his attempt to interpret it as yiddish.

  15. Ies, the Netherlands said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

    A nice story about false friends. I could mention some more, but these would not be allowed, I am afraid ;-). That having been said, you are welcome not only to Holland, but also to the other part of the Netherlands. I know that many people call the Netherlands 'Holland', but for me (and many others), 'Holland' refers to the western part of the country only, i.e., the provinces of North Holland (with Amsterdam and Schiphol airport) and South Holland (with the Hague and Roterdam). Nijmegen is located in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Germany. Finaly, for those who mix up 'fietser' with 'pedestrian', this is undrstandebale, since many cyclist use the pedestrian area.

  16. Ken Brown said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 11:57 am

    Robert F said: "I only found out loose could be a verb when…"

    Not just a verb but an imperative – "Loose!" is what one is supposed to say to order soldiers to shoot arrows.

    I cringe inwardly when I see a film or TV programme supposedly set in ancient times or the middle ages in which an officer orders archers to "Fire!"

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