Darn those pesky idioms! Tricky Dutch expressions

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Sarah Welling from UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam, talks about tricky Dutch expressions and gives a few tips and tricks on how to deal with them.

"Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve!", "To get something under your knee" and "Washing that little piglet". These expressions make perfect sense... in Dutch, that is.

You may have come across them already yourself. Idioms are expressions, words or phrases that have a figurative meaning that is quite often unique to the language in question.

This means they cannot be translated word-for-word into other languages, as the examples above show. (Which mean, respectively: "Now we get to the real truth!", "To master a skill or trick" and "Getting a job done".)

In fact, whole books and websites are dedicated to the hilarity that ensues when you translate them literally into another language.

When you are learning a language, there are two sides to this. Idioms can be fun, and the crazier a phrase, the more memorable it is.

They can also be a headache, though, simply because you can’t always be sure the words people use have the same meaning you have been painstakingly learning by heart.

Idioms, idioms, everywhere!

At least the above examples are clearly recognisable as idiomatic expressions. However, there is also a category of idioms that are less obvious, and which tend to sneak in everywhere, under the radar.

When you ask native Dutch speakers about them, they may not even realise they are idiomatic expressions - they are that ingrained in the language.

These "sneaky" idioms revolve around a number of verbs that refer to physical states or actions, such as sitting, standing and putting or placing (zitten, staan, zetten).

The problem is that there are lots of expressions using these verbs that have evolved to the point where they have absolutely nothing to do with these physical acts.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

Zet hem op!

"Put what on?", you might ask. In the case of this particular expression, context could get you a long way: it’s typically heard at sporting events or competitions when someone is about to undertake some physical or mental challenge. It’s roughly equivalent to "Go on, you can do it!" or "Go get ‘em!"

Context is really important because these phrases are so abstract - there are very few meaningful clues to grab hold of. 

Hoe staat het?

Another example is a phrase you might overhear in a changing room: "Hoe staat het?" ("How does it stand?") Of course, this has nothing to do with standing on two feet. It’s a way of asking how an item of clothing or jewellery looks on you. Hangen (hanging) might seem more logical here, but when it comes to idioms, logic ain’t your friend...

 Niet aanzitten!

Then there are all the different ways in which the humble verb zitten (sitting) is used, which have nothing whatsoever to do with planting your backside on an object or surface.

Imagine this: a parent sees their child reaching for a vase or some other fragile object. They grab the kid’s hand and say, "Niet aanzitten!" So "ergens aanzitten" (touching something, usually in a negative sense) is something you do with your hands, not your bum!

Handy to know, but not necessarily something you will learn in your first Dutch lesson.

Zit het lekker?

For another use of zitten, we can head back to the changing room. Imagine: you’ve already checked that the shirt you’re trying on fits well. But what about the comfort factor? You can ask yourself, "Zit het lekker?" ("Is it comfortable?")

As you can see, the meaning of zitten covers all kinds of things and it pops up everywhere.

Unfortunately, though, they’re not mutually interchangeable, so you do need to know which one is used in which expression.

Tips and tricks

All this is pretty intimidating when you’re struggling to express yourself in Dutch. I think one thing that can help is to learn these idioms as complete phrases that belong to certain contexts, like the competition or changing room in the examples above.

Another strategy is to add a game element: become an idiom-spotter, trying to collect as many peculiar phrases as possible in the wild.

For added amusement, ask the person you are talking to what they mean by "sitting at the vase" or telling someone to "put it on" during a race, and watch their reaction. Chances are, they’ll be lost for words.

Or, to use a good old Dutch idiom, they will "stand there with a mouth full of teeth" ("met een mond vol tanden staan’).

Sarah Welling works for UvA Talen, the independent language centre of the University of Amsterdam. Their fast-paced courses help students make rapid progress learning English, Dutch and ten other languages. Visit their website or follow UvA Talen on Facebook for more information.

Sarah Welling


Sarah Welling

I am half Dutch and half English and work as an editor and translator. I am fascinated by the subtle and less subtle ways in which my two languages and...

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