If you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much! They say roughly 30% of our everyday speech is made up of expressions. Well, the Dutch probably use closer to 90%! Here are 33 Dutch phrases and idioms to get you started.
There are 16.99 million Dutchies across the globe and a further 28 millions of Dutch descent. Despite the longest word in the Dutch dictionary ‘Meervroudigepersoonlijkheidsstoornissen‘ (meaning ‘multiple personality disorder’) weighing in at 38 letters, they don’t speak ‘double Dutch’.
Apparently, Dutch is one of the easiest languages to grasp if you’re an English speaker and even easier if you speak German, but you might need some ‘dutch courage’ to attempt pronouncing all their guttural-sounding ‘g’s.
Since learning Afrikaans, I’ve discovered a bunch of hilarious Afrikaans expressions. But, they can’t take all the credit for these linguistic gems. Afrikaans is actually the offspring of the Dutch language which formed after the Dutch settled in South Africa in 1652.
So, all this hilarity actually comes from the Dutch. It’s interesting to note that there are still a lot of expressions and general vocabulary which are exactly the same in both languages. There are some modifications to the Afrikaans versions which include either historical or geographical references.
When I came across the Afrikaans expressions ‘ń Klap van die windmeul weg hê‘, literally ‘to be hit by windmill’ meaning ‘to act crazy / unintelligent’ I wanted to learn more! Despite there being no windmills in South Africa, this expression went unchanged from its original Dutch form ‘Een slag van den molen weg hebbe’.
I’ve found countless examples of amusing expressions, insults and, vocabulary oftentimes with equally funny or interesting origins. I do love a bit of etymology so I’ve included some of them where known.
The Dutch love expressions and will litter their everyday conversations with them. Just when you think you’ve learned them all, all of a sudden you hear about someone ‘having butter on their head’ or ‘falling into the house with a door’.
Confused? We’re just getting started!
Here are my 33 favourite funny Dutch idioms and expressions. For the infographic, scroll to the bottom of the page.
1. To fall with the door into the house
Translation: Met de deur in huis vallen
Meaning: To get straight to the point
2. As if an angel is peeing on your tongue
Translation: Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest
Meaning: Someone who is really enjoying their meal
3. Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve
Translation: Nu komt de aap uit de mouw
Meaning: Similar to the English expression “to let the cat out of the bag”; the moment that a hidden motive or the truth behind something is revealed.
Origin: In the past, street artists would often perform tricks by hiding a monkey in their coats. At the end of the performance the monkey would “come out of the sleeve” and reveal the trick!
4. It’s raining pipe-stems
Translation: Het regent pijpenstelen
Meaning: Similar to the English expression “to rain cats and dogs”; to rain a lot. Since it rains a lot in the Netherlands, there are equally A LOT of expressions about rain.
Het regent koeiestaarten
It’s raining cow tails!
Het regent bakstenen
It’s raining bricks!
Het regent scheermessen
It’s raining razors!
Het regent telegraafdraden
It’s raining telegraph wires!
Het regent kopjes en schoteltjes
It’s raining cups and saucers!
5. He who has butter on this head should stay out of the sun
Translation: Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven
Meaning: Similar to the English expression “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. You should not criticise other unless yourself are without fault.
Origin: The phrase is said to have been around since the 17th century, as it was found in a text by the famous Dutch poet Jacob Cats (1577-1660). The reference is unknown, but it may refer to a time when people would carry their groceries in baskets on their heads.
6. To fall with your nose in butter
Translation: Met zijn neus in de boter vallen
Meaning: To be at the right place at the right time
7. To buy a cat in the bag
Translation: Een kat in de zak kopen
Meaning: To have been duped into buying something without inspecting it properly
8. Did you fall down the stairs?
Translation: Ben je van de trap gevallen?
Meaning: A Dutch person might ask you this odd question if you have had a rather drastic haircut
Origin: The original version of the expression ‘Hijs is van de trap gevallen en heeft zijn haar gebroken’ (He feel down the stairs and broke this hair) was already in use in the 18th century.
9. Hand shoes
10. Clean mother
Origin: The actual origin likely has little to do with the subject of cleanliness and more to do with the lesser know meaning of the word ‘schoon’ meaning beautiful/fair. Similar to the French term belle-mere, schoonmoeder thus refers to your ‘beloved’ mother-in-law.
11. Toilet glasses
Meaning: Toilet seat
Origin: Some would say that the ‘bril’ part comes from the shape of the toilet seat which resembles a spectacle of sorts hovering over the ‘eye’ of the toilet bowl. Another explanation could be it’s referencing the ‘shelf’ inside dutch toilets (instead of a water-filled bowl) which serves as a platter to display the contents of your bowels for closer examination. Yep, I’m grossed out too!
12. Peanut cheese
Meaning: Peanut butter
Origin: The oldest use of the Dutch word ‘pindakaas’ dates from 1855. The word ‘piendakass’ appeared in the Surinamese dictionary at this time and referred to a large block of crushed peanuts that locals slices in a similar way to that of a block of cheese and ate on bread. Peanut butter, as we know it, was introduced to the Dutch market by the brand Calvé in 1948. However, it was not possible to market it under the name of ‘pindaboter’ due to the ‘Butterlaw’. This ‘Butterlaw’ stipulated that only butter could call itself butter. Dutch peanut butter was thus marketed as ‘pindakaas’.
13. Nail pants
Origin: To understand the origins of this linguistic riddle we need to go back to the mid-1800 gold rush days when Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss developed a pair of sturdy denim overalls for miners in San Francisco. Levi partnered with the tailor, Jacob David who suggested the final critical ingredient in making the pants even sturdier: nails! By bolting the material together at the seams with rivets the two entrepreneurs designed the perfect pants that we still wear today!
14. Butter ham
Origin: While the origin of ‘boterham’ is unclear, let me share this story with you.
Once upon a time there was a man named John Montagu (1718-1792) who was a ferocious gambler. During marathon gambling sessions he was said to eat slices of cold meat between bread in order to avoid taking breaks to eat a proper meal. Mt Montagu happened to also be the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, thus the name of this odd snack took hold.
15. Donkey’s bridge
Meaning: Mnemonic. A system of rhymes, rules, phrases, diagrams, acronyms and other devices which help you to learn and remember information. For example, most English-speakers know of the man named: Roy G Biv. The letters of his names spelling out the order of colours of the rainbow.
Origin: Donkeys are particularly fearful of water, so to get a donkey to cross the countryside it was often necessary to build temporary planks bridges over gaps and ditches, creating handy shortcuts. This is how Ezelsbruggetje came to mean memory tricks using shortcuts. Once a donkey finds his way over water the first time, it never forgets its route again.
16. Shield toad
17. Lazy horse
18. Sea wolf
19. Belt animal
20. Garden snake
21. Fire snake
Meaning: Fire hose
22. Horse flower
23.To sit with your mouth full of teeth
Translation: Met de mond vol tanden staan
Meaning: To be speechless.
24. To walk on one’s gums
Translation: Op zijn tandvlees lopen
Meaning: To be exhausted
25. To sit like herrings in a barrel
Translation: Als haringen in een ton zitten
Meaning: To be crowded
Fish are part of numerous Dutch idioms. For example, it is also not unusual to say someone is ‘as healthy as a fish’ (zo gezond als een vis). The herring, in particular is a traditional food and herring season is an annual event.
26. To have something under the knee
Translation: Iets onder de knie hebben
Meaning: To possess in-depth knowledge of something, to master it.
Origin: The expression first suggested dominating an opponent in a fight and, over time, its meaning extended to things one can learn.
27. Cucumber time
Meaning: This term refers to the quiet summer period when little happens.
Origin: Traditionally, farmers were busy during the summer months, but other businesses had nothing to do. More and more this term is used to refer to the lack of news or activity.
28. Talking about little cows and little calves
Translation: Praten over koetjes en kalfjes
Meaning: Meaning that you are chatting about nothing of importance or nothing in particular.
29. I can’t make any chocolate from that
Translation: Daar kan ik geen chocola van maken
Meaning: Similar to the English expression ‘It’s all Greek to me’; indicating that you can’t understand something.
30. What have I got hanging on my bike now?
Translation: Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen?
Meaning: This is a way of saying “What’s going on now?” or “What do I have to deal with now?”
Origin: Cycling is the most common means of transportation in Holland. Many people go their entire life without owning a car.
31. We will certainly get that piglet washed
Translation: We zullen dat varkentje wel even wassen
Meaning: That you will take care of something, fix something or get the job done.
32. Get a fresh nose
Translation: En frisse neus halen
Meaning: To go outside and get some fresh air.
33. Now my wooden shoe is breaking!
Translation: Nu breekt mijn klomp!
Meaning: To be totally amazed or not expect something
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Excerpts taken from Stuff Dutch People Say
Over to you!
Which of these funny Dutch phrases did you like this most? Speak Dutch? What other Dutch idioms and phrases would you add?
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