Dutch for all occasions

Dutch for all occasions

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Sarah Welling, from UvA Talen, gives us the lowdown on Dutch festive etiquette, so you know the right phrase for every occasion (and every greeting card). 

Are you learning Dutch and looking for opportunities to practice the language? Try taking advantage of holidays and festivities to congratulate people and wish them well.

Like any language, Dutch has a range of set phrases people use to mark life events and celebrations. Here’s a list of the most common ones, including some of the specifically Dutch customs and vocabulary surrounding these events.

Congratulations all around

The Dutch don’t have a word for being demonstrative. In fact, they’re proud of their reputation for no-nonsense, down-to-earth "nuchterheid". But when it comes to congratulating people, there are moments when they really go the extra mile. Anyone who has ever been to a Dutch birthday party can probably speak from experience here.

For the Dutch, congratulating the actual birthday boy or girl (also known as "de jarige job") is not enough. Oh no… That person’s spouse, parents and children must also be congratulated on the happy occasion. And their friends. And anyone else who happens to be in the room, basically.

When it comes to birthday wishes, the generosity of the Dutch knows no bounds. If you’re at a party and new guests come in, be prepared to be congratulated yourself - just for being there! Whatever your opinion is on this custom, it’s a great opportunity to really nail your pronunciation of "gefeliciteerd!"

Storks and tiny mice

The Dutch also have a number of customs surrounding the birth of a baby. To announce the arrival of a new little bundle of joy, a card is sent through the post to all of the parents’ friends and relations, announcing its name and birth weight.

Visitors who come and see the baby, or colleagues who work with one of the new parents, will also be offered a very specific treat: a rusk covered in tiny sugar-coated aniseed balls. Traditionally, they are coloured pink and white for a girl and blue and white for a boy (although I have also seen some parents mix up the colours for a more gender-neutral take).

The name of this traditional delicacy is "beschuit met Muisjes®*". When offered one, the correct response is, obviously, "ja, lekker" (yes, yummy). And you can be thankful that you won’t need to pronounce this devilish combination of double "ui" yourself.

Front-garden festivities

Of course, another way of announcing a birth, seen in quite a few countries, is putting a stork in the front garden. The Dutch have another, more unique, front-garden custom related to birthday celebrations, however. They put a life-sized doll of a grey-haired man or woman, known as an "Abraham" or "Sarah", in front of the birthday person's house to let everyone know they have turned 50.

There are also inflatable versions of these dolls, which are much bigger than life-sized! This means that your entire street knows about a birthday you would be forgiven for wanting to ignore. And just to make sure, your dear friends and relations may also post signs on trees and lampposts announcing that you have "seen Abraham" or "seen Sarah".

This strange custom is related to the phenomenon of "kroonjaren" (crown years). These are birthdays that are considered extra special, like golden and silver marriage anniversaries.

The Internet tells me that there are more of these special birthdays with associated biblical figures: Isaak (Isaac) and Rebekka (Rebeccah) for 60; Jacob and Rachel for 70; and Jozef (Joseph) and Asnath (Asenath) for 80. Abraham and Sarah are the only ones I’ve seen hanging around in front of people’s homes though!

For better or worse

Apart from festive occasions such as births and marriages, you may also want to have some phrases at hand for more trying times. "Beterschap!" is very useful for get-well cards. And "sterkte!" and "kop op!" are useful phrases for general trials and tribulations.

In the sad event that someone you know has lost a loved one, "gecondoleerd" is the standard expression used to express condolences. If someone’s up for an exam or some other challenge, "succes!" (with one "s") will do the trick. Or you could tell them to "zet hem op, je kunt het!

And just as the English language has "break a leg!", Dutch also has a special phrase for wishing luck to someone about to perform on stage, which is "toi toi toi!". This is thought to have come from the German language, the toi sound referring to the beginning of the German word for devil, Teufel.

Some general expressions

To round things off, here are a couple more general expressions that Dutch people use a lot. So, why not do as the Dutch and throw them in the mix on every appropriate occasion!

Geniet ervan! (Enjoy!)

Whenever someone is off on holiday, away for the weekend or has told you about their plans.

Fijne dagen! (literally: Nice days!)

Before, or during, a national holiday or bank holiday weekend. Especially during holidays like Pinksteren (Whitsun), when quite a few of us aren’t exactly sure what we are celebrating…

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.

*Muisjes®  is a registered trademark of Koninklijke De Ruijter B.V.

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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