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Top Dutch Idioms and Proverbs

The world may think of clogs, tulips, herrings and the infamous coffee shops when thinking about the Dutch. If you moved beyond the stereotypes, you might be thanking the Dutch for giving the world the submarine, the chocolate bar (thank you Casparus van Houten Sr), the CD, bluetooth, and traffic enforcement cameras (ok, maybe we’re not that happy about this one). But what we should really be thanking the Dutch for are their wonderful, and often hilarious, Dutch idioms and proverbs.

The Dutch language is not only fun to speak with its rolling r’s and guttural sounds, but it also has some glorious sayings that can sound quite bizarre when translated into English. Here are some of our favourites:

PHOTO1 (1)Talking about little cows… via eesaam / Flickr

Animal Business

A number of Dutch idioms and proverbs revolve around business. Let’s not monkey around, here are the cream of the crop of animal-related sayings.

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw

Literal Translation: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve

Meaning: When you find out an important detail that you didn’t know before, or that was deliberately kept hidden; or you finally see the true side of a person, you can exclaim nu komt de aap uit de mouw! Picture a monkey falling out of a magician’s sleeve.

Over koetjes en kalfjes praten

Literal translation: Talk about little cows and little calves

Meaning: This is the Dutch equivalent of small talk. When you are talking about nothing of real consequence, or just making conversation, you are talking about the koetjes en kalfjes!

 Als haringen in een ton zitten

Literal translation: To sit like herrings in a barrel

Meaning: Ah, the Dutch do like their herrings! This expression is quite self explanatory. It means to be somewhere very crowded. While in most cities you would use this to describe the metro or bus, you could feasibly use this in Amsterdam to describe the bike lane!

PHOTO2 (2)Like herrings in a barrel via Claus Ableiter / Wikimedia

Edible Idioms

Speaking of herrings, there are also a number of food related Dutch idioms. Here’s a slice of some of the food related sayings that are common in Dutch.

Iets voor een appel en een ei kopen

Literal translation: To buy something for an apple and an egg

Meaning: To buy something very cheaply.

Een koekje van eigen deeg gerepresenteerd krijgen

Literal translation: To give someone a cookie made from their own dough

Meaning: This is equivalent of the English expression “to give someone a taste of their own medicine.”

Een appeltje met iemand te schillen hebben

Literal translation: To have an apple to peel with someone

Meaning: This is the Dutch equivalent of “to have a bone to pick with someone.”

Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest

Literal translation: As if an angel is peeing on your tongue

Meaning: This rather hilarious expression is used when food tastes amazing, or you like something. Quite a fun way to describe the sensation in your mouth!

PHOTO3I’ve got an apple to peel with you via Clara T / Flickr

Of knees and lids

Moving from the edible to the strange, there are other sayings in Dutch that are quite eclectic to the English ear, as they are very different to sayings we have. Here’s a small sample of some quirky Dutch sayings.

Iets onder de knie hebben 

Literal Translation: To have something under the knee

Meaning: If you have mastered something, you have it under the knee. It is thought to come from a fight, where if you had someone literally under your knee, you would be winning / dominating your opponent.

Een deksel op zijn kop hebben

Literal Translation: Having a lid on his head

Meaning: To take responsibility for something. If you are the one with the lid on your head, you are in charge of something.

The wonderful Dutch expressions are just one reason that learning Dutch is fun. If this teaser has sparked your curiosity to learn more, then contact us today about Dutch lessons. And in no time at all you’ll have Dutch under the knee!