Friday, January 21, 2011

Collective nicknames in Belgium

From Wikipedia:
Besides or replacing the demonym, some cities and villages have collective nicknames for their inhabitants. This tradition is still strong nowadays in Wallonia (Belgium), where this sort of nickname is referred to in French as "Blason populaire".
This is not only true for Wallonia. Here's a monster post of collective nicknames from all over Belgium, with some curious back-stories to boot.

Vaantjesboeren - pennant-peasants

The basilica in Halle.
The Basilica of Saint Martin in Halle has been a popular target for Christian pilgrims since the 14th century. It was common for pilgrims to acquire a souvenir at the holy places they visited, and in Halle's case this was a small cloth pennant (vaantje in Dutch). Thanks to a technique using woodcut stamps, the pennants could be manufactured in great numbers in a relatively short time.

The pennants attracted extra attention during Austrian Emperor Francis II's visit to Halle in 1794. The town was crowded with booths offering pennants bearing an image of the Emperor alongside the Virgin Mary.

Stroppendragers - noose-wearers

A monument to the original
stroppendragers in Ghent.
(Source: Gentblogt/Eric Bucholtz)
In the sixteenth century Ghent was part of the domain of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Although Charles was himself born in the city, this did not lessen his rage when the citizens revolted against the rising war taxes in 1539.

After the revolt was beaten down, the defeated people of Ghent were subjected to a famous case of public humiliation. Barefooted, and wearing nooses (Dutch: stroppen) around their necks, they were all paraded in front of the emperor. This was supposedly to give them a painful reminder of the emperor's power over life and death, or it was simply so he could have a laugh. Either way, the people of Ghent have been known as stroppendragers (noose-wearers) ever since.

The nooses of the stroppendragers later became a symbol of resistance towards tyranny and defiance in the face of misplaced authority. During the annual Gentse Feesten street festival people are often seen wearing nooses in black and white, the colours of the city's coat of arms.

Maneblussers - moon extinguishers

The belfry of Saint-Rumbold's Cathedral
in Mechelen. (Source)
Mechelen seems to be teeming with folklore; the story behind its collective nickname is but one of many great tales from this beautiful city.

It all happened on the night between 27 and 28 January 1687. From the open door of an alehouse a man stumbled, as drunk as was allowed in the days before cars and heavy machinery were invented. He glanced up at the sky and was shocked to see bright red flames and thick smoke rising from the belfry of Saint-Rumbold's Cathedral. His desperate cries of alarm were heard by the neighbours, who came to their windows and saw that the clock tower was indeed on fire. Fear swept across the city like a tidal wave.

The more resourceful among the citizens quickly formed a line and began passing buckets of water to the church tower from a nearby well. When they reached the top of the tower they suddenly realized that the "fire" they had seen was, in fact, the moon. The stained-glass windows of the cathedral had turned the moonlight crimson, and the "smoke" turned out to be nothing more than morning mist.

People from Peer and Turnhout are called muggenblussers for much the same reason. Both these towns experienced a brief fit of panic when someone mistook a thick swarm of mosquitoes around the church tower for the smoke from a fire.


Will-o'-the-wisp is the English name for a mysterious glowing light often observed in swamps or marshes at night. In Diepenbeek this phenomenon was explained with the story of the schoverik. According to these legends, the ghostly lights were really the lost souls of the dead who had not made it to heaven.

It was said that if you whistled in the presence of a schoverik, it would start to follow you. One story told of a man who was followed by a schoverik but managed to run away from it. He ran home to his house and slammed the door shut so the creature would not catch him. The next morning he found the charred imprint of a horse's hoof burned into the door on the outside.

Grebbeschijters - grate sh*tters

Some time in the 1960s there was a big party in Eeklo. While walking home after the party, several people were afflicted with acute diarrhea. The 'grate' part of the nickname refers to the grates in the gutters next to the sidewalk, which was the only place they could relieve themselves.


A centuries-old legend tells of a man from Hamme aan-de Durme who caught a jay and taught it to speak. This bird is the "Wuiten" which the people of Hamme are now nicknamed after.

One day a longboat came up the mighty Schelde river with its deck full of bloodthirsty Vikings. The Norsemen fell upon the village like a locust, killing, burning and pillaging to their hearts' content. Among the things they stole was the cage with the jay in it. After this the jay became silent, never speaking a single word to its new owner.

After several years the jay was sold to the captain of a trade ship. One day the ship came up the very same river that the Vikings had many years before. As the church tower of Hamme came into view, a bright and cheerful voice was suddenly heard on deck:

"Kwek, kwek, 'k hein Ham gezien!" ("Chirp, chirp, I can see Hamme!") It was the bird, who had finally decided to speak again now that it had come home.

Koeieschieters - cow shooters

During a siege by the French in 1691, a group of Leuven militia on night patrol encountered what they believed to be a platoon of French soldiers. They fired a few volleys at the enemy before retreating to a safe position. The next morning they found that they had mowed down a herd of cows.


Keikoppen refers to someone who is very stubborn. Poperinge and Ypres have a history of feuding, and this escalated when the Count of Flanders issued a decree that no fine linen would be woven within a radius of three hours' walk of Ypres. The people of Ypres immediately walked to Poperinge as fast as they could, proving that the town was less than three hours' walk away and thus making sure that Poperinge would also be bereaved of its lucrative linen industry.

Verbrande Puttenaars - burned Puttians

Some time in the 18th century two men were arrested in Putte for attempted robbery. They were soon discovered to have committed a long range of other crimes, including murder. They were swiftly condemned to death. By the time they were led to the gallows, a great crowd of people had gathered to watch them hang.
The place was so crowded that people climbed into trees to get a better view. A tree-branch broke under the weight of a dozen or so men, and they all fell crashing to the ground. "These farmers will die before we do!" laughed the two robbers.

Provoked by this, the villagers decided not to go through with the hanging. Instead they gathered firewood and burned the two men alive at the stake.


Hopefully this post gives you an impression of how deeply ingrained in Belgian culture these names are. Here is a list with some more names, translations and (some) explanations. Since you made it this far already, you'll probably find it interesting.

Note to Dutch-speakers: if my spelling of some of the names seems wrong, it could be because they are written in the local dialect.

  • Aalst: ajuinen (onions; from the rich onion-growing business in the area in the past)
  • Aarschot: kasseistampers (cobble stompers; from the town guards who would stomp around loudly to remind the city's inhabitants of their presence)
  • Alsemberg: trapschijters (stair-sh*tters)
  • Antwerp: sinjoren (from the Spanish señor; refers to the Spanish nobles who ruled the city in the 16th and 17th centuries)
  • Anzegem and Lembeke: gapers (yawners)
  • Arendonk: telouwerele'ers (dish-lickers)
  • Balegem: haringeters (herring-eaters)
  • Bassevelde, Schaarbeek, Wenduine and Kuurne: ezels (donkeys/jackasses)
  • Bavegem: torenschijters (tower-sh*tters)
  • Bergen-op-Zoom: krabben (crabs)
  • Bilzen and Bree: trottoirlopers (pavement runners)
  • Blankenberge: mussels (mussels)
  • Bonheiden: grote mannen (tall men)
  • Boom: hondenfretters (dog-eaters)
  • Bornem and Massenhoven: vliegenstovers (fly stewers)
  • Bovekerke and Harelbeke: ratten (rats)
  • Brasschaat: kapittelhoutmakers (firewood-makers)
  • Breendonk: mëttes (calves - the animals, not the body parts)
  • Bruges and Ronse: zotten (crazies)
  • Brussels: kiekenfretters (chicken-eaters)
  • Dadizele: pompeschitters (pump-sh*tters; from the fact that the inhabitants used a tub near the village pump as a public toilet)
  • Damme: zuipers (drinkers, drunks)
  • Deinze: koordenmakers (rope-makers)
  • De Klinge: voddenrapers (scroungers)
  • Dendermonde: knaptanden ('crunch-teeth'; named after a legendary monster from the area)
  • Diest: mosterdschijters (mustard-sh*tters)
  • Dilbeek: konijnenvreters (rabbit-eaters)
  • Erpe and Mere: papeters (pudding-eaters)
  • Gaasbeek: heren (lords; probably inspired by the magnificent Gaasbeek Castle)
  • Geel: gekken (lunatics)
  • Geluwe: gapers ('those who gape')
  • Genoelselderen: loerjagers (game stalkers)
  • Geraardsbergen: bergkruipers (mountain crawlers; from the hilly landscape surrounding the town)
  • Haasdonk: kasseidieven (cobble-thieves; people from Haasdonk were once caught stealing cobblestones from Beveren)
  • Hasselt: koeketers (cookie-eaters; from their famous speculoos)
  • Heist: zwanen (swans, as seen in the city's coat of arms)
  • Heist-op-den-Berg: telaatkomers (latecomers; acquired when arriving too late for an important battle centuries ago)
  • Hekelgem: hopboeren (hops farmers)
  • Heks: heksen (witches)
  • Herderen: koeien (cows)
  • Herdersem: meiviskoppen ('May-fish-heads'; from the many fishmongers who came to the village fair held in May)
  • Herentals: peestekers ('sausage-stickers'; referring to a town guard who lost the bolt to the city gate and used a sausage as a temporary replacement)
  • Herselt: Joden (Jews)
  • Herve: boeren (peasants)
  • Hoeilaart: stoefers (gloaters; from when the area's grape industry made the inhabitants rich during the depression after World War I)
  • Hoeselt: doornkappers (thorn-cutters)
  • Houtvenne: stekkebijters (stick-biters; the poorest people in the area were said to have nothing to put in their mouths but little sticks of wood)
  • Ypres: katten (cats)
  • Impe: omleegvallers ('down-fallers'; a reference to the rumour of heavy drinking among the inhabitants)
  • Ingelmunster: brigands (highwaymen; coined by the French troops who fought the people of Ingelmunster in the Peasants' War of 1798)
  • Izegem: pekkers ('pitchers'; from the pitch used in the manufacture of shoes)
  • Kalmthout: heikneuters (redpolls)
  • Kanne: witters ('whiters'; from people who whitewashed their houses)
  • Kasterlee: pompoenpapeters (pumpkin purée-eaters)
  • Knokke: duineslapers (dune-sleepers; from the sand dunes at the coast)
  • Kortrijk: Leiepissers (due to lack of public restrooms, drunk people relieve themselves in the Leie river on their way home in the night)
  • Leeuwergem: dommeriken (morons)
  • Lennik: strobranders (straw-burners; burning great amounts of straw was a method to warn the inhabitants of nearby Brussels against approaching armies)
  • Lichtaart: kwezels (sisters, as in nuns)
  • Lier: schapenkoppen (sheepheads; centuries ago, the town declined to become the site of a new university to keep its animal market)
  • Lille: Krawaten ('Croatians'; from an incident in 1625 when farmers from Lille murdered a Croatian nobleman and his men near the town)
  • Maldegem: wildjagers (game hunters)
  • Membruggen: waterratten (water rats)
  • Merchtem: aaten ballekes (wooden balls; during the war, poor people in Merchtem would carve out little wooden balls and cover them in ground meat as a substitute for meatballs)
  • Merksem: stroboeren (straw farmers)
  • Merksplas: spetser (splasher; from the many pools and puddles forming in the road in rainy weather)
  • Mesen: dikkoppen ('thickheads')
  • Millen: kattenvillers (cat skinners)
  • Namur: Escargots
  • Neerpelt: wolvenschieters (wolf shooters; a great wolf hunt in 1837 was suddenly called off when one of the farmers realized that the beast they were chasing was his own dog)
  • Nekkerspoel: mestrapers (manure-pickers)
  • Ninove: wortels (carrots)
  • Oordegem: polkaboeren (polka peasants)
  • Ravels: pieren (earthworms)
  • Retie: kortoren (short-ears)
  • Roeselare: vechters (fighters)
  • Riemst: grottenlopers (cave-runners)
  • Scheldewindeke: groene buiken (green-bellies)
  • Sint-Gillis-Waas: kolenkappers ('coal-cutters'; in the 19th century many people relocated from Sint-Gillis-Waas to Charleroi, Le Center and the Borinage to work in the coal-mines)
  • Sint-Katelijne-Waver: Kadodders (named after folk hero Jan Kadodder)
  • Sint-Lievens-Houtem: broekwassers (trouser-washers)
  • Sint-Niklaas: oliezeikers (oil-pissers; from the many oil mills in the area)
  • Stabroek: ajuintrappers (onion-stompers)
  • Temse: azijnezeikers (vinegar-pissers; see Sint-Niklaas above)
  • Tollembeek: hanezoekers (rooster-seekers; from when the cockerel-shaped weather vane on the church tower went missing)
  • Attehoven, Stekene, Vosselaar and Tremelo: messenvechters (knife-fighters)
  • Ukkel: rattenfretters (rat-eaters)
  • Verrebroek: Flippen (from the nickname of Philip Verheyen, Verrebroek's most famous inhabitant)
  • Veurne: slapers (sleepers)
  • Vilvoorde: pjeirefretters (horse-eaters; Vilvoorde is famous for its many restaurants serving horse steak)
  • Voorde: jeneverdrinkers (Jenever-drinkers)
  • Vrasene: kerkschijters (church-sh*tters; during World War II a group of people were holed up in a church during a battle. They were forced to stay inside for so long that they had no choice but to use the church as a toilet)
  • Vroenhoven: smokkeleire (smugglers; Vroenhoven is located close to the border to the Netherlands)
  • Wilrijk: geitekoppen (goat-heads)
  • Weert: slijkneuzen (mud noses; from the fact that the inhabitants used to earn their living digging in the dirt for roots to be used in basket weaving)
  • Wellen: bokkenrijders (goatriders)
  • Wervik: tabaksmoorders (tobacco smokers)
  • Wichelen: schooiers (ragamuffins)
  • Wieze: vliegeneters (fly-eaters)
  • Zennegat: bootslepers (boat-pullers)
  • Zichen-Zussen-Bolder: schildpadden (turtles)
  • Zichem: heren van Zichem (lords of Zichem)
  • Zottegem: schoenmakers (shoemakers)


Writing this post made me realize that history is being written every single day, and even the smallest of events can have an impact that lasts for centuries. Think about that the next time you're about to shoot at something that might turn out to be a cow.




  1. This might be the best post I've read so far! I love the way those names reveal a little part of history and cultural beliefs back then. Thanks for writing this blog, I keep on learning new things every time! ;) <3

  2. It's all thanks to Belgium's awesome history :)

    Thanks, I'll never stop ;) <3