Citizen is a perfectly good word when the context is about nationality. But where “burgers” are the general public, that’s what you should usually say. Otherwise you’re risking sounding as if you’re talking about the French Revolution or writing a dystopian novel (and I should know – I’ve had one published).

It’s one of those words where the overtones can be very different. Burger doesn’t bring up overtones of extreme political addresses, 1984 and “Aux armes, citoyens“. Which overusing citizen can.

  • normal usage: citizens being given the right to vote, a passport proving you are a citizen of a country
  • that’s also the usual context for ‘citizenship’: belonging to a nation. Dutch burgerschap meaning ‘teaching your kids how to be good members of society’ may well need explaining.
  • where you are just talking about burgers in a neutral, modern sense, they are the general public, people, the public at large
  • a single burger is mostly a member of the public
  • Note: in historical contexts (Golden Age and similar), the term burgher may be used.

BSN (the burgerservicenummer) is often translated as the citizen service number, or variants with apostrophes. Although that won’t mean much to an English speaker either, without context. A social security number or national ID number is often more understandable.

Prevalence: high. Because it’s so simple, and it is understandable (don’t get me wrong).
Frequency: high. Liable to occur more than once in a text.
Native: no. Not when writing texts, but it’s such an easy one-for-one substitution in translations that I’ve certainly seen it done!

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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