A taste of Dutch: Idioms & Expressions

The "flavour" of a language often lies in idiomatic sayings and expressions that make no sense if you translate them literally, but may sound hilarious if you do so. Idioms are developed over time, deep within a language, with their true meaning often reserved for the natives and their origins relevant to the culture they belong to.

So let’s take a look at some of these idioms, with both their literal and figurative meanings, in the language that surrounds us: Dutch.

 Over koetjes en kalfjes praten

(To talk about little cows and little calves)
This expression basically means small talk, dealing with unimportant subjects. The Dutch refer to animals in many of their idioms. No surprise then that a misfit in a group can be described as a vreemde eend in de bijt (a strange duck in the pack).

 Nu komt de aap uit de mouw

(Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve)
To continue with the animal theme, the Dutch use this saying when the true meaning of a situation or the character of a person comes to the surface. The saying apparently has its origins in magic tricks during which a monkey popped out of the magician's long sleeves.

 Iemand met apenmunt betalen

(To pay someone with monkey money)
So fond are the Dutch of monkey idioms, you can even pay someone with monkey coins, which means to fool someone with nice words. References to money may refer to the Dutch trade and merchant past.

 Ieder dubbeltje omdraaien

(To turn every ten cents)
This is perhaps a reflection of the Dutch's thrifty ways, as it refers to making-do with little money.

 De kogel is door de kerk

(The bullet is through the church)
This is the Dutch way of saying that, after long deliberation, a decision has been made. During battles in the past, churches were spared from attacks and shooting out of respect, so when an enemy did not subscribe to this unspoken agreement, it meant that he was capable of commiting any evil in battle. Other opinions simply attribute this expression to the nice alliteration.

 Weten waar Abraham de mosterd haalt

(To know where Abraham gets the mustard from)
The saying basically means to be informed and up-to-date on a particular issue. The meaning is supposed to originate from the Old Testament, namely the chapter when Abraham is preparing for the sacrifice of his son by gathering firewood, known as mustaards, a word which evolved over time into the similarly pronounced mosterd.

 Paarse krokodil

(Purple crocodile)
A more recent expression, which entered the language after a 2005 commercial for insurance services and has come to signify exaggerated bureaucracy.

 De lakens uitdelen

(To distribute the sheets)
To run the show. The origin of this expression is not completely clear, but dictionaries suggest it refers to distributing fabric with the meaning of assigning work, and therefore being in charge.

 Iets onder de knie hebben

(To have something under the knee)
To have thorough knowledge of something, to master it. The expression first suggested dominating an opponent in a fight and, over time, its meaning extended to things one can learn.

 Een appeltje met iemand te schillen hebben

(tTo have a little apple to peel with someone)
The expression means to be angry at someone and wish to pay him / her back, similar to "having a bone to pick with someone" in English. A rather ironic saying, since preparing to eat something with a person one is upset with is no pleasant affair.

 Het Spaans benauwd krijgen

(Become Spanish breathless)
The idiom refers to a state of fear or anxiety. Associating this with Spain takes us back to the times when Spain was the oppressor, during and prior to the Eighty Years War.

 Als haringen in een ton zitten

(To sit like herrings in a barrel)
This is a way to suggest people being crowded, for example on public transport. It is no surprise that fish are part of numerous Dutch idioms.

For example, it is also not unusual to say someone is "as healthy as a fish" (zo gezond als een vis). The herring in particular is a traditional food and herring season is a joyful annual event.

 Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest

(As if an angel pisses on your tongue)
One way to say the food tastes great. The expression evolved from an angel that fietst (cycles) on your tongue, replacing "fietst" with the childish funny word "piest" while preserving its meaning.

 Met de mond vol tanden staan

(To sit with your mouth full of teeth)
Meaning to be speechless. Along with op zijn tandvlees lopen (to walk on one’s gums), meaning to be exhausted, two expressions whose origins I’ve yet to discover...

The list goes on and on...

Catalina Barzescu


Catalina Barzescu

Catalina is a media and journalism graduate from the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and an avid writer and reader. Instead of returning to her Transylvanian roots when the studying was done...

Read more



Leave a comment

RuthAnn Hogue 01:54 | 21 October 2019

Hi, I enjoyed this list. I am trying to track down the origin of the phrase "speaking of box crocodiles" and thought might be Dutch because my family emigration to the states from the Netherlands. Any ideas? I used to hear it growing up. Sadly, my parents are gone so I cannot ask. Thanks!