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In reflecting on yesterday’s blog post, I realized similar references to “questions” similar, but different in important ways, to the Gretchenfrage, in idiomatic Dutch and American English usage. Goethe’s “Faust” is a work that “remains a resonant parable on scientific learning and religion, passion and seduction, independence and love,” as well as other subjects, and is a justifiably proud influence not only on German arts and society, but on much of the “Western” world. The Dutch and American references are, how should we say, somewhat less noble in their lineage.

When the Dutch refer to a crucial question whose answer addresses the essence of a subject, the question is called the hamvraag, literally, the “ham question.” This is a reference to a radio game show that ran in the Netherlands from 1953 – 1957, in which contestants were asked a series of alternating questions. With every correct answer they were allowed to climb one rung higher on a ship’s mast that was placed in the studio. At the top of the mast the main prize was placed, a smoked ham. No, I’m not making this up. The last, and most important question, was thus called the “ham question,” as the correct answer won the contestant the ham.

Even though this construction may seem curious to those from other cultures, there are two important cultural references in this game setup. First of all, the ship’s mast. As being a people whose country is largely reclaimed from the sea and whose history is one in which the sea played an enormous role in its development, many of the cultural references in the Netherlands are in one way or another associated with water. Having a ship’s mast, instead of, say, an ordinary painter’s ladder, is culturally significant.

Secondly, this program took place starting in 1953, a short eight years after the end of WWII. At the end of the war, the Dutch suffered a terrible famine, the hongerwinter, eventually killing more than 18,000 people and resulting in generations of resulting sicknesses and diseases. Even though most likely apocryphal, the stories of people resorting to eating tulip bulbs are still told and retold by generations of survivors. Good quality food, therefore, took on a special significance. A nice, smoked ham symbolizes well being, nourishment for the family, and the comfort of being well fed. Far more appealing to the Calvinist values of the Dutch than would be cold, hard cash.

The American reference also refers to a game show, this one being “The $64,000 Question.” Again the saying “that’s the $64,000 question” refers to the final prize in a television show that ran from 1955 – 58. Current usage of the saying also refers to a question that’s answer is of prime importance. But, frankly, I can’t find any significant cultural references in the format of the show or the use of the phrase. When one watches videos of the show, one is struck with the impression of how blatantly  the game show was simply a vehicle for selling products. But something tying it to the roots of American culture . . . ?

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Leo Salazar

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