It’s been said that, on average, 30% of a language is idiom and expressions. Dutch is actually 98.7%. Well maybe not that high, but be prepared for utter confusion when cows, monkeys, windmills and weather barge into your everyday casual conversations.

Funny Dutch expressions

1.

sleeve
(Nu komt de aap uit de mouw)
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. 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!

2.

tong

3.

pipes
(Het regent pijpenstelen)
I’ve been known to casually throw this expression into a conversation with a complete stranger at a tram stop just because I really like the visual imagery it evokes. Can you see it now? A sky filled with the long stems of colourful little pipes, perfectly illustrating the intense Dutch rain falling down in sheets.

4.

cat
(Een kat in de zak kopen)
To have been duped into buying something without inspecting it properly

5.

ring
(Al draagt een aap een gouden ring, het is en blijft een lelijk ding)
Similar to the English expression “a pig in lipstick”; used to convey the message that superficial or cosmetic changes are futile at disguising the true nature of a person or thing.

6.

teeth

7.

tail

8.

cow
 (Je weet nooit hoe een koe en haas vangt)
You never know how things will turn out; you can’t predict the future; strange things can happen

9.

trap

(Ben je van de trap gevallen?)
A dutchie might ask you this odd question if you have had a rather drastic hair cut. The original version of the expression “Hij is van de trap gevallen en heeft zijn haar gebroken” (He fell down the stairs and broke his hair) was already in use in the 18th century.

10.

fly
(Van een vlieg een olifant maken)
Don’t make something out of nothing, similar to the English expression ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill’.

11.

dogs

12.

butter
(Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven)
Similar to the English expression “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”. You should not criticize others unless you yourself are without fault. 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).

13.

molen

14.

mustard
(Weten waar Abraham den mosterd haalt)
To have great insight into something. This expression has its likely source in the Old testament (Genisys 22:6), where Abraham is ordered to sacrifice his first born. He collects “mutsaard”, an old term for firewood. Mutsaard over time likely bastardized to mosterd, et voila: another crazy Dutch expression!

15.

deur

96 Responses

  1. Erwin

    Een open deur intrappen. (kicking in a open door) = Making a statment that is blatantly obvious.

    Als het kalf verdronken is dempt men de put. (When the calf has drowned they fill the well) = Something first has to happen/go wrong before any action is taken.

    Just two as I’m at work.

    Reply
    • Karen Kraakman

      Niet de baby met het badwater weggooien. Of wat de pot de ketel verwijt

      Reply
      • Bernard Veerman

        the pot calls the kettle black

      • Erwin

        De pot verwijt de ketel dat die zwart ziet.

      • Else Winnink

        Het is: De pot verwijt de ketel dat hij zwart ziet.

  2. digitalface

    The expression is: Van een mug (a mosquito) een olifant maken.. 🙂

    Reply
  3. Gus

    1. Hy val mee ze gat in the boter.
    2. Don’t know the Dutch anymore but translated would mean: to be knocked down by a garbage truck, never a Cadilac. (Being criticized by an idiot, not a knowledgeable person.)

    Reply
      • sug

        He is mentioning two different Dutch expressions. The first is written in (sort of) Dutch, and for the second he does not know the correct Dutch form, so he wrote it in English.

      • KDD

        its your nose. not your but. Geesh.

    • Gina Jones

      “Met z’n gat in de boter gevallen” means he got real lucky with something

      Reply
      • Annemiek

        Hij viel met zijn NEUS in de boter.

      • adrie sleijster

        volgens mij is het
        met je neus in de boter vallen
        fall with your nose in the butter

        you are lucky to be there at the right moment..

      • Isabelle

        Met je neus in de boter vallen is de correcte uitdrukking

    • Joop

      Hij valt met z’n neus in de boter.
      He is very lucky

      Reply
      • Dick

        Dat klopt, neus… maar als je de jackpot wint mag het wel ‘met je hele kont in de boter vallen’ zijn.

  4. Bill (Papa Van Twee)

    I love stuff like this. I found it odd that Dutch would have sayings that were so different from English. Now I just want to learn more. The angel peeing on your tongue is my new favorite.

    Reply
    • R Gotte

      When you ate to much we say i am sitting before the mast.

      Reply
    • Mia Campioni

      ‘Val van m’n graat’, try and translate it literally in English and they look at you as if you are mad, the other way around: been invited to a barbecue ‘bring a plate’, so you get the message and bring a plate (with a fork and knife), they look at you, but they are anglo so they say nothing and put your plate with the other plates.

      Reply
    • B. Jansen

      It’s actually : it’s like an angel is peeing over my tongue.
      As in: this is so delisious, it’s like an angel is peeing over my tongue!

      Reply
    • Martin Davies

      It’s not that Bill The English sayings are just different from the Dutch we also call a Shower a Douche

      Reply
  5. Pants

    No. 6 means to be verbally assertive (to the point of being a bitch).

    Reply
  6. Fem

    Oh! Could you make postcard merchandise of this? It would be great for Postcrossing

    Reply
  7. Piet Spaans

    Nummer 10 klopt niet. Het moet zijn: Van een mug een olifant maken.

    Reply
  8. Rob Hakker

    I love this website. Thank you. Now, does anyone know some old “drinking songs”? My mother sang to my sister’s children as she held them in her arms. I thought they were lullabies. But my sister told me they were old drinking songs. Is this familiar to anyone?

    Reply
  9. J

    Leuk gedaan! Een kanttekening: nummer 10: Van een MUG een olifant maken, niet van een vlieg

    Reply
  10. adaja

    it is not ‘ to make an elephant out of a fly’ it actually is to make an elephant out of a musquito’

    Reply
  11. Rob

    #6 is wrong. It actually means Boeing able to stand up for yourself, verbally

    Reply
    • Stella

      It’s not all over being able to stand up for yourself. 1. mostly disapprovingly said of women and 2. self-assertive.

      Reply
    • mireille

      You’re right Rob, the saying is mostly used about women, though. It means basically the same as another saying : “Die laat zich de kaas niet van het brood eten” translates in “he doesn’t let someone eat the cheese from his bread”, which means something like he can take care of him self, he can fight his own battles. This saying is used for both sexes..

      Reply
  12. Ruthie

    Grew up with a mother who spoke fluent Dutch, never heard of any of the sayings!

    Reply
    • Stella

      I never new the one of the broken hair. But I do know the joke on your straight hair: mayby the barber can cut curlings in your hair (and sometimes he really can!).

      Reply
    • Isabelle

      I live in Holland, we really use those à lot

      Reply
  13. Stella

    Alsof er een engeltje op je tong pist verwijst eerder naar de godendrank ambrozijn. Dus dat iets bijzonder lekker is. Dat iemand van zijn maaltijd geniet is wat anders. Je kan ook van je prakkie opgewarmde boerenkool genieten, maar daar wordt het engeltje niet op losgelaten.

    Reply
    • mireille

      My mother used it “te pas en te onpas” (to fit and to unfit :-D) whenever she saw fit. Everysthing that is a bit more special then boerenkool and is (extremely) well made, used to be.. Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest!

      Reply
  14. Aissah

    Saying no 10 is actually “van een mug een olifant maken” a mosquito and not a fly. But overall very funny even as a Dutchie

    Reply
  15. Cecile

    Leuk en interesant maar leerde van een “mug” een olifant maken niet een vlieg?!

    Reply
  16. Johan

    “Haar op je tanden” may have meant “to be sturdy/strong” originally, nowadays it is used to express that a person is verbally strong, knows to speak his mind. “Niet op zijn mondje gevallen” (has not fallen on his mouth) dus.

    Another nice one involving teeth: “iemand aan de tand voelen” (To touch/feel someone’s teeth) is used when you question someone thoroughly.

    I’ve been in several meetings involving different nationals and it’s always good fun to translate expressions back and forth, often coming to the conclusion that there are also unexpected similarities – I never knew that “take something with a grain of salt” (iets met een korreltje zout nemen) is also valid in English.

    By the way, the various synonyms you provide serve to show that this is absolutely not a typical Dutch Trait. “Lipstick on a pig”… ludicrous!

    Reply
    • Jannette

      Dan sta je goed met de mond vol tanden, (then you stand with your mouth full of teeth) als je dit allemaal weer ziet

      Reply
    • Stella

      Haar op de tanden hebben is not be mouthy or verbally strong. It is ment as in a fight, it is a special kind of being verbally strong. It is absolutely not ladylike, because of the used languages. So men are carefully with women who have hair on the teeth.

      I suppose long ago the Vikings were supposed to have grown hair even on their teeth, or maybe their wifes were the first ones, defending the homestead when the men were prowling,

      Reply
  17. Don Zeyl

    Where does the expression, “in de aap gelogeerd” come from?

    Reply
    • Jannette

      That means that ,you know that ,something will turn out wrong.

      Reply
    • Kees

      There was an old hotel called De Aap (the monkey) what was not well known, being very dirty and where guests often where robbed. So the expression means that you came in troubles.

      Reply
      • pieter

        Many sea resorts in Holland have a “Badhotel”. English speakers will rarely stay there.

      • Stella

        It means: then it turns out how the betrayal worked.
        Today it’s not always mean. A story told about what happened to someone and by thoroughly asking details, you get the cue. An important detail was held back; so sorry, it was your own fault.

        This is the meaning. The question is: where does it come from. And that’s from establishments like Café In ‘t Aepjen, Herberg de Aap and such like. Aapjes/little apes were exotic and could serve as attrative name. And these exotics could be trained as thieves. The tiny apes could be hidden in the wide sleeves.

    • Maartje

      Café In ‘t Aepjen

      cafe in den aepjen amsterdamAuthentiek proeflokaal in het beroemde Middeleeuwse houten huis op de kop van de Zeedijk (5 min. lopen van het Centraal Station)

      In ‘t Aepjen is zeker een must-see in Amsterdam! Het is er heel klein, heel erg 16e eeuws en historischer krijg je het bijna niet.
      Drink hier een borrel en kijk om je heen naar alle relikwieën: oude kruiken waarin vroeger de sterke drank in werd bewaard, het beeld van een aap, de oude tap met een bronzen beeld van een 17-eeuwse man erop , hele oude schilderijen en prenten en dan heb je nog niet naar buiten gekeken om vanuit je rustige plek te kijken naar de stroom van bewoners en bezoekers die hier dagelijks langslopen.

      Het interieur is van donker hout, en aan de lage bar zit je op mini-barkrukken. In ‘t Aepjen was vroeger een zeeliedenlogement, waar de zeelieden hun drankrekening betaalden met meegebrachte apen uit de overzeese werelddelen. Deze meegebrachte apen zaten onder de vlooien. Iedereen die In ‘t Aepjen had gelogeerd kwam al krabbend en onder de jeuk naar buiten… Hier komt de naam van het cafe en dus ook de uitdrukking “in de aap gelogeerd zijn” vandaan. Heb je iets gekocht wat niet deugd dan ben je…. in de aap gelogeerd!

      Openingstijden
      zondag t/m donderdag 12:00 – 1:00 uur
      vrijdag en zaterdag 12:00 – 3:00 uur

      Adresgegevens en plattegrond
      Zeedijk 1
      1012 AN Amsterdam
      bezoek de website
      T 06 53650312

      Reply
      • Paula

        Wat leuk. Zonde dat ik er zo dicht bij gelopen heb zonder het to zien. Wist er niets van. Dank!

      • Mia Campioni

        Thanks, dank je wel, voor deze informative, ben in twee weken in Amsterdam, moet dat zien, wist niet dat die aap echt bestond!

    • Dees

      Don’t know the exact origin, but I believe that centuries ago it used to be a very cheap, filthy inn. If you were late and all other inns were full, or you didn’t have enough money for decent accomodation, your only option was to go and stay ‘In den Aep’.

      Reply
  18. Tim

    ‘t Regent pijpestelen – so, in English it’s raining cats and dogs!
    (I like that one for the same reason! 😉 )

    Reply
    • Stella

      It’s raining cats and dogs: het regent ouwe wijven.

      Reply
  19. Stella

    12. Boter op het hoofd hebben: accuse someone, but you have/do the same or are responsive to it, something like that.

    Reply
  20. Stella

    The cat in the bag is a hare bought unseen. At home you see it is a cheap cat in stead of an expensive hare.

    Reply
  21. Anneke

    Our dear mother knew most of these and used them daily. We grew up with them and often apply them to situations even though we have been in Oz for 65 years.
    Anneke

    Reply
  22. Sjoe!

    Ik ben benieuwd of men kan deze uitdrukkingen in Van Dale Groot Uitdrukkingenwoordenboek vinden.

    Reply
  23. Fred

    Dit zal me aan de reet roesten.. (This will rust my ass).

    Reply
  24. Ton

    Hij heeft zijn meeste brood al op. (iemand die oud is) He has eaten most of his bread already (somebody who’s very old)

    Reply
  25. A Vander Wal-Glockner

    Also raised in a Dutch speaking family but never heard many of these expressions. Perhaps it depends on which province our parents came from.

    Reply
    • Stella

      No, I have leaned enough expressions at school and by reading books. The learning books weren’t regional. At religious schools there may be religion oriented expressions. Once we read a poem containing the word beddeken (bedje). It was read as bed-deken and the teacher asked: why bed blankets, do you know other blankets than for your bed? No, he/we didn’t. But wait, we noticed a strange atmosphere. There was something around the girls who came from the catholic primary school and they were shy. They knew another kind of deken but felt being a not understood minority. Well, it turned out that in the catholic religion there is the functionary of deken (dean) but that word was clearly not ment, laying in your beddeken.
      And once a teacher asked us what we knew about the hiernamaals. Again, only the catholic girls knew. The others kept blown by the strange word, the strange and ungrammatical stringing together of words. The inevitable following word & meaning of purgatory didn’t make it better.

      Nowadays with internet we speak with people around the whole country and the whole world. There are indeed region bound expressions within a country, but in the Netherlands are not that much Dutch regional expressions that you know none of them. The really region bounded expression aren’t understandabe if you don’t know the regional dialects and the regional usages. It is more that some people use less expressions than other or are too fixed on their own ways of sayins things.

      Reply
    • Mia Campioni

      I hope you have the complete list of these expressions with their English translations in book form, because this is exactly what I need for my Australian grandchildren. Dus waar krijg ik dit boek in Nederland als ik daar ben?

      Reply
  26. Frank vander Steen

    As being Dutch, I love this website. I cannot think of a typical Dutch saying, when I have a nice one, I’ll be back…

    Reply
    • Mar

      Een bord voor z’n kop hebben… Have a plate in front of your head (don’t see/want to see something/is doing something dumb)

      Reply
      • Stella

        Well, it’s about your own dumnesses. Not noticing your behaviour/saying/choice clothes/etc is out of place.

  27. Freya

    Van de pot gerukt zijn! (Being dragend of the shitter) meaning Being or doping something utterly mad

    Reply
  28. David Bloch

    (Je weet nooit hoe een koe en haas vangt) ==> (Je weet nooit hoe een koe een haas vangt)

    Reply
  29. Anastazia

    My Favorite:

    Iemand op de kast jagen –> “Hunting someone up the closet”
    Meaning that you annoy someone. Usually in the hope that they will fall for the bait or bite.

    Reply
  30. Lia McGonigal

    Daar lusten de honden geen brood van! Something outrageous. Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest is meestal van toepassing op dranken.

    Reply
  31. B. Jansen

    Liever 1 vogel in de hand dan 10 in de lucht -> a bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.

    It is better to have something small instead of maybe be able to have more and eventually even end up with nothing

    Reply
  32. Klaas van Beek

    Als je je kont brand, moet je op de blaren zitten. When you burn your but, you have got to sit on the blisters.

    Reply
  33. georgeqkaplan

    25 years ago, a Dutch friend told me that the Dutch have an expression that sounded to me like this:

    Haus ze blinkt, frau ze stinkt

    I don’t know Dutch, so may have misspelled this. Is this a Dutch expression and, if so, how should it be spelled?

    Reply
    • Stella

      Sounds like: huis blinkt, vrouw stinkt.
      The house is kept clean very well, both inside and outside, but the housewife doesn’t wash herself very well.
      When I was 4, we moved to a new build appartment. Very new was the bathroom with shower. Once a week a bath or shower was usage, with daily a “kattewasje” = a quick wash at the sink. To wash your private parts to, was not commonly known and hair was not often washed. Everyone was a bit smelly, but it was a common smell.

      Daily cores were hard and often took a long day, so many housewifes were proud that the did the house well and the children were cared well for. Many a wife had no time to care for herself and there were woman who wo didn’t care about a clean body, because everybody was smelly, little wash-privacy and no knowledge about hygienic items.

      Reply
    • Daniev

      Zuinigheid met vleit bouwt huizen als kastelen en luizen als kamelen

      Reply
    • Wil Graumans

      Het huis blinkt, de vrouw stinkt. Thuis should be the right translation, but I have never heard this expression.

      Reply
  34. C. Talbert

    Er is een boek: GROOT SPREEKWOORDEN BOEK. Herkomst, betekenis en gebruik van alle bekende spreekwoorden. Geschreven door: Ed van Eeden. Weet niet of het nog verkruigbaar is. Gelukkig heb ik een copy.

    Reply
  35. Bette

    No. 1 “nu komt de aap uit de mouw” is not the same as letting the “cat out of the bag,” which means telling or giving away a secret. Telling someone in advance about a surprise party planned for him would be letting the cat out of the bag. De aap uit de mouw refers to revealing true motivation or a hidden agenda.

    Reply
  36. Alyda Bailey

    These are all great. I am a Dutchie living in the US and here are two more funny expressiuons
    -You can’t pluck feathers from a frog. (Je kunt geen veren van een kikker plukken.) i.e You can’t sqeeze blood out of a turnip.
    -Don’t walk on one night’s ice. (Niet over 1 nacht ijs gaan.) i.e Think before you do

    Reply
    • Stella

      I learned the 1st as Je kan geen veren plukken van een kale kip (of a bare chicken).

      The one of the one night’s ice reminds of:

      Daar was eens een mannetje, dat was niet wijs
      Hij bouwde zijn huisje al op het ijs
      Toen het begon te dooien en niet te vriezen
      Toen moest het mannetje zijn huisje verliezen

      Always thought it a queer childrens poem. But then I read in some books about former times, you could cross the Zuiderzee (IJsselmeer) over the ice. That was in the Small Glacial Epoch. And some years later I heard about the frozen American big lakes: at winter drive with your car over the ice for shorter routes. Little houses on the ice for fishing.

      Wikipedia: Met de Kleine IJstijd wordt de relatief koude periode bedoeld die duurde van de vijftiende tot en met de negentiende eeuw. Gemiddeld lag de temperatuur tijdens de Kleine IJstijd in West-Europa zo’n 1 à 2 graden onder de waarden die tegenwoordig worden bereikt. Wereldwijd lagen de gemiddelde temperaturen 0,5 tot 1 graad lager dan tegenwoordig. Met “tegenwoordig” wordt hier de klimatologische periode 1960 tot 1990 bedoeld.

      Reply
  37. Jeannine

    Spijkers op laag water zoeken. To look for nails in shallow water (to nit-pick).
    Zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens. As the clock ticks at home, it ticks nowhere else (there’s no place like home).
    Dan zijn de rapen gaar! Then the turnips will be cooked (then you’ll be in trouble).
    Hij heeft de klok horen luiden, maar weet niet waar de klepel hangt. He’s heard the bell ring, but doesn’t know where the clapper hangs (he has a general idea but doesn’t know the details or finer points of something).
    Zoals de waard is, vertrouwt hij zijn gasten. The way the landlord is, that’s how he trusts his guests (people who are suspicious of others often aren’t entirely trustworthy themselves).
    Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen?! Now what is this hanging off my bike?! (Expression of surprise at an unexpected -problematic- event).
    Boontje komt om zijn loontje. The little bean comes for it’s wages (what goes around, comes around). Wie een kuil graaf voor een ander, valt er zelf in. He who digs a hole for someone, will fall in it himself (idem).
    Loop naar de pomp! Walk to the (water)pump! (Get lost, p*ss off!)
    Als een vlag op een modderschuit. Like a flag on a mudbarge – dredge. (Inappropriately or ineffectively embellished)

    Indeed, we do seem to use a lot of expressions :-0

    Reply

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