If you’re learning Dutch, chances are you’ve run into one of the trickiest things about the language: its idioms.
Spoken Dutch is rife with these figures of speech, little aphorisms, adages and proverbs.
If you don’t know them, and know how to use them, you’ll always be catching up to conversations, so in this article we’ll go over the most commonly used ones to get you up to speed.
Note that these idioms often go hand in hand with Dutch curses, so you may want to go over some of them as well.
Thing is, you may sometimes feel that Dutch is difficult, but don’t forget that aanhouder wint, the persistent one wins.
Even if you come across something difficult, like a weird proverb, don’t let yourself be beaten off the field, laat jezelf niet uit het veld slaan.
To beat a retreat (de aftocht blazen) isn’t necessary, hou vol (“keep full,” endure) and you’ll be fine.
Study enough, and you can regularly “shake something out of your sleeve,” uit je mouw schudden, and seem like you find it easy (je hand niet omdraaien, “you don’t turn your hand”) to speak Dutch.
The fact is, you pledged to learn Dutch, and belofte maakt schuld (“promise makes debt”). Sure, sometimes you feel like you don’t know anything about it (er geen bal van afweten, “to not know a ball of something”), but eventually you’ll get there, just put your eyes on infinity (blik op oneindig) and keep going.
Worst case scenario, you take a Dutch teacher in the arm (in de arm nemen, to recruit somebody): even if it doesn’t help, it can’t hurt (baat het niet, dan schaadt het niet).
If you do decide to get a teacher, don’t forget that goedkoop is duurkoop, if you get somebody cheap, it’ll cost you in the end.
On the other end of that, de kost gaat voor de baat uit, so make sure it doesn’t cost more than it’s worth (lit: “the cost goes before the value”).
Practice, practice, practice
No matter which way you go, make sure you practice every day. After all, practice makes perfect or oefening baart kunst (lit: “practice bears art”).
If you do make a mistake, though, don’t stare yourself broken (jezelf kapot staren), just let it sit (laat het zitten) and keep going forward.
When learning any language, it helps if anytime you have nothing better to do (niets om handen hebben, “to have nothing around your hands”) to rehearse what you’ve recently learnt.
That way, before you know it you’ll be talking like Brugman (a famous orator from the Middle Ages).
Expressions based on money
Still, though, the many idioms used in Dutch are like a separate language, and one that you’ll encounter time after time, kom je steeds tegen.
Some of them are pretty simple and make perfect sense, like de balans opmaken (“making the balance”) at the end of a venture or when looking back in retrospect.
It makes sense, because at the end of a business venture, a bookkeeper adds it all up and balances out in and outgoing money.
This idiom, like many others, has its roots in business and money, two things the Dutch have close to the heart (na aan het hart hebben).
So somebody who spends too much is throwing it over the beam (geld over de balk smijten) or has a hole in their hand (een gat in de hand hebben).
On the other end, if somebody is thrifty or frugal, you say hij zit op zijn geld, they’re sitting on their money. You can also say they won’t give up a cent, hij geeft geen cent los.
One very common expression when talking about something that’s cheap, you say dat is geen geld! (“that’s no money!”) or you could even say that you bought it for a scheet en een knikker (“a fart and a marble”).
You can also refuse to do something using a money-based expression, like voor geen geld! (“for no money!”) or al krijg ik geld bij (“even if you give me money”). No matter what, you’re not doing what they’re asking.
Money is also used to compare things, even things that aren’t tangible. When faced with two equal choices, Dutch people will say voor hetzelfde geld, which literally means “for the same money” but is used more like “for the same effort.”
If you keep some money back for later or for eventualities — so not like your retirement fund or anything — you say you keep een appeltje voor de dorst, or a “small apple for when you get thirsty.”
Money isn’t the only thing Dutch people talk about, though: many idioms are of a naval character, reflecting the long relationship between the Dutch and the sea.
For example, when you return disappointed from somewhere, you’ve reversed sails, or bakzeil halen.
The reason you returned disappointed may be because you expected too much, or you got into an argument with somebody: you had an aanvaring (when two ships hit each other).
Alternatively, you were the odd man out in a business deal and fell between the dock and the ship, tussen wal en schip vallen.
That said, it could be that your erstwhile business partners secretly did you a favor: by cutting you out they prevented you from going into the ship (het schip ingaan), which means suffered a massive loss after taking a risk.
A sea-based idiom is also used to describe an asset the Dutch hold dear, the ability to be forthright and go straight through the sea (recht door zee gaan).
If you don’t make your heart into a murder-pit (van je hart een moordkuil maken, or to not keep emotions and opinions to yourself), you can rest assured that people know exactly what to make of you, something Dutch people prize.
In the same vein, you can make a clean ship (schoon schip maken) which means you’re telling the truth about something after hiding it, though it can also mean when somebody new to an organization shakes things up (another equivalent is nieuwe bezems vegen schoon, “new brooms sweep cleanly”).
One last common marine expression is to “miss the boat” on something (de boot missen) which means to miss out on something, or to be late for something important.
Besides the great brine, there’s also a lot of water inside the Netherlands and as a result we have a lot of expressions to do with the wet stuff.
For example, we have het water staat me tot op mijn lippen (“the water is up to my lips”), which means that you can’t take much more of the situation you’re in.
Equally dramatic is in troebel water vissen, “to fish in troubled water,” which is when somebody tries to get something out of a situation where two people are fighting.
When something fails, it falls into the water (in het water vallen) and if you’re very brave or nothing is too much for you, people will say that no water is too deep for you (geen water is jou te diep).
Lastly, when something is useless, you can say that it is like “carrying water to the sea” (water naar de zee dragen). An equivalent expression, and one I like more, is to “mop with the faucet open” (dweilen met de kraan open).
Other common expressions
We’ll finish up with a few common expressions that aren;t quite as easy to place.
The first is aan de hand zijn, which means that something is happening. There’s a very old, antiquated English expression that something is “on hand,” which is comparable.
Dutch people will use this expression all the time, especially as a question: wat is er aan de hand?
It can be an expression of concern to a fiend, but it’s also what a teacher asks when walking into a rowdy classroom. It’s a tricky one, but you’ll figure it out as you go along.
Another one I like a lot is het is weer hetzelfde liedje (“it’s the same song again”) when something or somebody is repeating itself in a bad way.
Your coworker showed up drunk again? The printer stopped working? Altijd hetzelfde liedje.
It’s a very useful expression, but not to be confused with van hetzelfde laken een pak, which is more used to denote how two things are made the same way, or somebody is using the same approach to a problem twice.
If somebody is constantly repeating himself, you can use de plaat blijft hangen (“that record keeps hanging”) or hij slaat altijd op hetzelfde aambeeld (“he always strikes the same anvil”).
Een eind aan breien
That’s it for now: it’s time to knit an ending to it (een eind aan breien).
Believe it or not, we’ve only scratched the surface of the many, many idioms and expressions Dutch people use, across the language’s many dialects.
However, to save you from overload, we’ll lift anchor for now (anker lichten) and wish you mazzel!