Talking Dutch: It’s a question of ham


Obscure cultural references have left their mark on the Dutch language. Who knew processed meats held such a place in local heritage?

Meaty matters

Once again, a headline in a Flemish newspaper had me stumped. ‘Omhoog?’ – “Up?” it read, is de hamvraag in de bergen – is the ham question in the mountains.

The article was describing a meeting of American bankers in a mountain resort to discuss a possible rise in the interest rate. I got all that, but I didn’t get the bit about the ham.

In search of an explanation, I visited the website of the Genootschap Onze Taal – Our Language Foundation. ‘Dat is de hamvraag’ betekent ‘dat is de cruciale vraag’ – “That’s the ham question” means “that’s the key issue”, the site helpfully explained; “dat is de vraag waar het allemaal om draait” – “that’s the question on which everything hangs”.

Now it made sense. The bankers were holed up on a mountain trying to decide whether it was a good idea to raise interest rates, or whether that would just make things worse. That was obviously the ham question. But why did it have to be ham?

Well, surprisingly, the ham question turns out to be a catchphrase dating from the early days of Dutch radio. It was coined in the 1950s in a programme called Mastklimmen – Mast Climbing.

Hoe meer vragen de deelnemers aan deze quiz juist beantwoordden – The more questions the contestants got right in this quiz, hoe hoger zij opklommen in een in de studio geplaatste mast – the higher they climbed up a mast placed in the studio. 

Bovenin hing als hoofdprijs – Hanging at the top was the winning prize: een gerookte ham – a smoked ham.  

Soap on a rope

Wie het juiste antwoord gaf op de laatste en belangrijkste vraag – Whoever gave the right answer to the final and most important question, de hamvraag – the ham question, mocht de ham uit de mast pakken – could take the ham down from the mast.

That explained the ham, but what about mast climbing? Mastklimmen was trouwens een spel dat al eeuwen geleden werd gespeeld – Mast climbing is actually a game that people started playing many centuries ago.

In mei 1668 – In May 1668, werd een mastklimwedstrijd te Brussel gehouden – a mast climbing competition was held in Brussels, ter ere van het Viktoriefeest – to commemorate the Victory Festival (held, in case you are wondering, to commemorate the Battle of Woeringen in 1288).

De klimmers moesten langs een met zeep ingesmeerd touw naar boven klimmen – The climbers had to climb to the top using a rope smeared with soap, om van den top van den mast een stuk vlees af te halen – and grab a piece of meat at the top of the pole, according to a 1688 newspaper report.

In its discussion of the hamvraag, the Genootschap Onze Taal compares it to “the $64,000 question” in English. This term also originated in a 1950s radio programme. But the winners in the American quiz show got to take home enough money to buy a family home, whereas the Dutch got a lump of meat.

Why the difference, you might be wondering. That, surely, is the ham question.

Photo: Ingimage