A Maatschappij of Mates.

I knew the Dutch word maatschappij ‘society, company’ from a former life as a member of the editorial staff of an accounting firm, and I would have guessed that the maat part was a cognate of English mate, but the details, as presented by this entry from N. van der Sijs’s Klein uitleenwoordenboek [Little loan-word dictionary], are quite interesting (thanks for the link go to the estimable Conrad); I present Google Translate’s version, with a few obvious problems cleaned up by me, but I do not know Dutch and will welcome any corrections:

maatschappij. The origin of the word maatschappij for ‘association for carrying on trade’ is closely linked to the founding of the Dutch East India Company [Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie] in 1602. The VOC was a company whose capital was provided by a group of wealthy merchants. They also spoke of the Oostindische Maatschappij or maetschappy. The word maatschappij is a derivation of maatschap [‘partnership’], formed in the fourteenth century from maat ‘buddy, companion, helper’ and the suffix –schap for collective names; a maatschap is thus a union of two or more persons.

Because the VOC in the seventeenth century was a leading international trading company, the Dutch word maatschappij was adopted by other languages. It was borrowed into Middle Low German in the form matschoppie, in German they spoke of Maskopei – now it is obsolete and replaced by Gesellschaft.

In Danish and Norwegian the word was borrowed as maskepi, and in Swedish as maskopi. In addition, Danish also borrowed unchanged the Dutch maatschappij, at least according to a Danish dictionary of foreign words. The Danish and Norwegian maskepi and Swedish maskopi have had a pretty significant development, namely they mean ‘covert relations, intrigue.’ This may result from the influence of the Norwegian verb maskere (Swedish maskera) ‘to mask,’ but it is more likely that the shift in meaning occurred because the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes had little confidence in the traders who had united in the Dutch trading company, which after all was stiff competition for their own trading.

In Polish, maatschappij was borrowed as maszoperia ‘trading company.’ One informant stated that this word appears in Kashubia, an area on the Baltic Sea near Gdańsk, where it is used for a cooperative organization of small fishermen.

In Indonesian the Dutch word was borrowed as maskapai ‘trading,’ in Javanese as maskapé, maskepé, and in Sranantongo as maskapei.

From the examples it appears that some languages ​​have borrowed Dutch maatschappij with the second syllable in –o– in place of the Dutch –a-. The Middle Low German form was pronounced [?] matschoppie. This –o– may restore the former Dutch pronunciation: in that period a was regularly pronounced /ao/ or /oa/; for example, think of the current dialect pronunciation /woater/. The German and Swedish words can also be borrowed from Middle Low German.

The OED etymology for mate ‘associate’ (updated March 2001) reads as follows:

< Middle Low German māt comrade (German regional (Low German) Maat), by aphesis < a Middle Low German cognate of Old High German gimazzo messmate (Middle High German gemazze) < the Germanic base of y– prefix + the Germanic base of meat n. Compare early modern Dutch maat (1546), maet (1573) friend, partner (Dutch maat), and also Middle Dutch maet– (in maetscap company, partnership), probably also a borrowing < Middle Low German (compare Middle Low German mātschop).


  1. SFReader says:

    English cognate would be ‘mateship’ then.

  2. So “mateship” presumably reached Australia when it was New Holland.

  3. No, there’s an English word “mateship” but it’s just a parallel formation. OED:

    1. Equality. Obs.
    1593 T. Nashe Christs Teares 30 Empery admitteth no mateshyppe.
    1633 W. Lithgow Scotlands Welcome sig. E4, The Minion, who pretends A Sou’raigne Mateship for his trechrous ends.

    2. The condition of being a mate; companionship, fellowship, comradeship. Now chiefly Austral. and N.Z.
    1856 E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh vii. 313, I sate among them equally, In fellowship and mateship.
    1897 ‘P. Warung’ Tales Old Regime 215 It was pleasant, as it was unusual, this mateship.
    1905 H. Lawson in B. Stevens Bush Ballads (1910) 76 The College Wreck..Tramps West in mateship with the man Who cannot write his name.
    1930 W. K. Hancock Australia x. 199 Thwarted individualism found consolation in the gospel of mateship.
    1984 People Mag. (Sydney) 7 May 40/1 Shearing to me is the mates I’ve made… There’s no greater mateship in any industry in Australia.
    1999 Daily Tel. 24 Mar. 15/1 The proposed new preamble to Australia’s constitution honours God, indigenous culture and ‘mateship’.

  4. “Kaszuby” should be “Kashubia”.

  5. Thanks, fixed!

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Note the difference between the very egalitarian/reciprocal sense of “mateship” in AustEng (and presumably in the Dutch cognate) versus the hierarchical sense seen in the nautical statuses of captain (skipper/master), first mate, second mate, third mate, etc.

  7. At the risk of veering off on a tangent….

    Is there a phonotactical reason why Slavonic languages do not seem to allow word initial [maʃ-] ? I cannot find a single word in any Slavonic language which is not clearly a Germanic or Romance borrowing. All other [mVʃ-] options are permitted.

  8. The conjugation of Russian махать ‘to wave’ is машу, машешь, etc. In Polish, ‘you (sg.) have’ is masz (infinitive mieć). Do these somehow not fit your requirements?

  9. The phoneme is clearly possible as it is easily borrowed and exists in conjugations but I can’t find it in any non-declined forms or roots. машу is < мах+ю but as far as I'm aware there is no verb stem маш- or non-verbs which begin маш-.

  10. I’m guessing the answer is simply happenstance; three phonemes in a row is, after all, a fairly high bar. A quick look suggests Russian doesn’t have native words starting /mad-/ either.

  11. The Danish meaning for maskepi is spot on, and it still construes as ‘fellowship’ would — you say that some one is in, or has, maskepi med djævelen (or, e.g., socialdemokraterne in more concrete cases). It is a mass noun, however.

    I don’t know why maskere, a transparent loan from French, is held to be only Norwegian; for me maskepi can mean both real fraud and collusion behind the scenes, and the more operatic sort of intrigue where a half mask fools everyone, and it’s a good guess that the latter is interference.

    However, any connection to Dutch or Düütsch trading companies is long lost from the Sprachgefühl, and any sort of formal organization, secret or not, would not be maskepi. As for maatschappij in the Danish loan-word dictionary — yes, but it just redirects to the nativized form; it’s possible that some 19C prescriptivist insisted on the “real” spelling (ignoring the Low German history, of course).

  12. it’s possible that some 19C prescriptivist insisted on the “real” spelling

    That was my guess as well.

  13. I too have put it down to happenstance but thought that if there were an explanation such as a theorised proto-Slavonic sound change, it would be revealed by the denizens of the Hattery.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    I first didn’t read it as saying that maskere is only Norwegian, only as assuming that the identity of the Danish form can be understood. But that’s probably me reading what I expect to read.

    Also, I think the verb maskere is too specialized to be a source of contamination. The noun Da./No. maske, Sw. mask “mask” is a more likely culprit. That’s the image I get from the word, anyway.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    And, yes, it’s pretty much restricted to the set phrase i maskepi med “in cahoots with”.

  16. @Trond, in Danish you can maskere yourself with a balaclava, a motorcycle helmet or even a big floppy hat — though only the first two will get you stopped from entering a bank. So to my thinking it’s more general than the noun, not more specialized.

    On the other hand, a maske is still the default instrument for maskere, and maskere the default action performed with a maske — a relation much like a zero-derived noun/verb pair where it’s hard to say which is (more) basic.

  17. In English, at least, it is easier to verb nouns by zero derivation than to nounify verbs, which typically requires a suffix. When verbs are nouned, it is often because they are back-formāted.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    In English, at least, it is easier to verb nouns by zero derivation than to nounify verbs, which typically requires a suffix.

    Most of the rest of Europe requires a suffix either way.

  19. May I ask, completely on a tangent, why an accounting firm needed editorial staff?

  20. Excellent question! They put out a series of guides to Doing Business in [Foreign Country] as well as various internal newsletters. When I first joined, in 1982, it was the cushiest job I’d ever had; we did as little work as we could get away with and frequently took two-hour lunches, often beer-fueled. And we occasionally hung out with printers, a notoriously bibulous lot. Just thinking about those times makes me nostalgic! But all good things come to an end, and for my sins I eventually found myself working at an advertising agency and having to stay at the office till 2 AM during busy spells. I’m making a lot less money as a freelancer, but I’m a lot happier.

  21. It happens that I am working on a lawsuit at the moment that involves several dozen European insurance companies – English, Dutch, Belgian, French, German, Swiss, and Italian. And for corporate names, the Dutch are the worst. We are dealing with companies with names like Algemene Levensherverzekering Maatschappij N.V. Many people at our firm do European work, so Aktiengesellschaft and Societe Anonyme are not too strange, but “Maatschappij” is simply impossible. Can’t be spelled, pronounced or remembered. And when they run into the abbreviation “MIJ” they have fits.

  22. Is that MIJ or ? (I’m asking because the system fonts on Mac display the IJ ligature (Į) exactly like the sequence I+J, except for the monospace font which bloody well has to fit the ligature in one cell. If you see an empty box, that would be the ligature).

  23. A normal (non-monowidth) font should not distinguish between single-character IJ and I followed by J, since it’s a ligature that doesn’t actually ligate.

  24. I’ve seen (sans serif) font designs where IJ has a short I over the left tip of the J (broken U design). And Wikipedia shows a lowercase ligature from Garamond.

    Personally I wouldn’t mind an uppercase ligature design where the J has a narrower bowl, since kerning isn’t enough to eliminate the white blotch. Also I’d bar the Swedish town of LJUNGBY from ever writing its name in capitals.

    (And that Į above was supposed to read &‌#306; = IJ — but the blogware is a bit too agressive converting entities to characters, apart from me getting the code wrong).

  25. Bruno van Wayenburg says:

    Maatschappij is, incidentally, also the word for ‘society’, including the meaning of ‘society at large’, so the mateship can apparently get rather inclusive. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals still work officially in ‘maatschappen’ (singular: maatschap, without the -pij), also a ‘mateship’ I guess, which implies that the partners have equal rights and contributions.
    My wife is a doctor and often refers to her partner as her ‘maat’, which is normally a colloquial word meaning ‘friend’, but which sounds quite businesslike in this context.

  26. Interesting, thanks!

  27. Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland (“Netherlands Steamship Company”) was founded in 1870 to carry freight and passengers through the new Suez Canal to the Dutch East Indies. So in addition to the Oostindische Maatschappij, this was another Maatschappij that would have been commonly known in what is now Indonesia.

    (I sailed on one of their ships as a child, so Maatschappij is one of the few Dutch words I know. I still have a suitcase with one of their labels.)

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