I once heard that learning the most common Dutch idioms and expressions was actually key to understanding spoken Dutch.
I have been living in the Netherlands and learning Dutch myself for years, and I really believe this to be true. These sayings are so commonly used, and often hard to translate, that it’s really important to learn them just as you would with grammar or vocabulary.
Many of the lists online tend to mention older sayings which aren’t even used nowadays. But I’ll go through the ones I hear on a regular basis (keeping in mind I live in Utrecht and work in Amsterdam).
What are Dutch idioms?
For starters, what is an idiom?
Idioms are phrases or expressions that have a meaning different from their literal translation.
Dutch idioms are such an important part of the Dutch language and are used in everyday conversation. Knowing these idioms can help you better understand and communicate with native Dutch speakers and give you a deeper insight into the Dutch culture.
Here are 21 Dutch idioms and sayings that I think everyone learning Dutch needs to know.
Funny Dutch idioms
Dutch idioms are often colourful and quirky, and these funny idioms are no exception.
1. Met je neus in de boter vallen
Literal translation: To fall with your nose in the butter
This idiom means that someone has landed in a fortunate situation unexpectedly or without any effort.
The origin of this expression is not clear, but it is believed to be related to a time when butter was a luxury item in the Netherlands and only the wealthy could afford it.
So, if you “fell with your nose in the butter” you were lucky enough to have stumbled upon a wealthy person’s household where butter was plentiful.
2. Helaas pindakaas
Literal translation: Unfortunately peanut butter
This expression is used to express regret or disappointment, similar to saying “too bad” or “that’s too bad.”
It is often used in situations where something did not go according to plan, and there is nothing you can do about it.
3. Jip en Janneke taal
Literal translation: Jip and Janneke language
This idiom is used to refer to simple, easy-to-understand language. It comes from a series of children’s books written by Annie M.G. Schmidt that were popular in the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her books are my number one and two recommendation for 5 easy children’s books to read as a beginner in Dutch!
4. Iets achter de rug hebben
Literal translation: To have something behind the back
This expression is often used to describe a situation that has passed or something that has been completed. It is often a way to express relief that a difficult or stressful situation has passed, and to acknowledge that they can now move on to other things.
For example, if someone has just finished a difficult exam, they might say, “Gelukkig heb ik mijn examen achter de rug” (I’m glad I have my exam behind my back) to indicate that the stress and anxiety of the exam are over.
Similarly, if someone has just finished a difficult project at work, they might say “Ik ben blij dat ik dat project achter de rug heb” (I’m glad I have that project behind my back) to indicate that the work is finished and they can now move on to other things.
5. Nu komt de aap uit de mouw
Literal translation: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve
This expression means that someone’s true intentions or motivations are finally revealed.
It is believed to come from street performer’s trick where they would hide a monkey up their sleeve and surprise the audience by revealing it.
6. Mosterd na de maaltijd
Literal translation: Mustard after the meal
This idiom means that someone is too late to do something, or they have arrived after the event has already taken place.
In the Netherlands it is common to serve mustard with meat dishes. So if you add mustard to your plate after you have finished your meal, it is no longer needed.
Everyday Dutch idioms
These Dutch expressions are commonly used in everyday conversations and interactions.
7. Aan de hand
Literal translation: On the hand
This expression basically means “going on” and can be used in different ways, for instance:
|Niks aan de hand
|Nothing is going on. Similar to saying “there’s no problem” or “don’t worry”.
|Wat is er aan de hand?
|What is going on?
|Er is wat aan de hand
|There is something going on
8. In de gaten houden
Literal translation: To keep in the holes
This idiom means actually means to watch or monitor something or someone closely, or “to keep an eye on”.
It is similar to saying “to keep tabs on” in English.
9. Een frisse neus halen
Literal translation: To take a fresh nose
This expression means to go outside and get some fresh air. It is similar to saying “to take a walk” or “to get some fresh air.”
10. Met de deur in huis vallen
Literal translation: To fall into the house with the door
This idiom is often used to describe someone who gets straight to the point without any preamble or small talk.
For example, if someone has important news to share, they might say “Ik ga direct met de deur in huis vallen: ik ga verhuizen” (I’m going to get straight to the point: I’m moving) rather than starting with small talk or other unrelated topics.
11. Geen meter
Literal translation: no meter
This expression is like a unit of measurement meaning “nothing” or “not at all”.
|Het klopt voor geen meter
|It doesn’t make sense at all
|Ik vertrouw hem voor geen meter
|I don’t trust him at all
12. Geen kip / geen hond
Literal translation: no chicken / no dog
This idiom is used to indicate that there is no one around or that a place is deserted — so there is no chicken or dog in sight. It is similar to saying “not a soul”.
E.g. “Er is geen kip! Er is gewoon niemand hier.”
There is not a single chicken. There’s just nobody here.
13. Het slaat nergens op
Literal translation: It hits nowhere
This is a common Dutch expression that translates to “it doesn’t make any sense” or “it’s nonsense.” It is used to convey that something is illogical, absurd, or unreasonable.
14. Een heel eind komen
Literal translation: To come a whole end
This is a Dutch idiom that translates to “to come a long way” in English.
It is used to describe progress or accomplishment in a task or goal. It suggests that while the destination has not yet been reached, significant progress has been made towards it.
E.g. ”Je bent al een heel eind gekomen!”
You’ve made a lot of progress already!
15. Geen kik geven
Literal translation: Not give a kick
This is a Dutch idiom that translates to “not to make a peep” in English.
It is used to describe someone who remains completely silent or does not make a sound in a situation where they are expected to speak or react.
16. Puntjes op de i zetten
Literal translation: Put the dots on the i
This Dutch idiom has a similar saying in English — “to dot the i’s and cross the t’s”.
It is used to describe the process of adding the final touches or details to something to make it complete or perfect. Even though most of the work has been done, there are still small details that need attention.
Dutch idioms about life
The Dutch language is filled with idioms and sayings that offer insight into Dutch culture and way of life. Here are some sayings that can help you understand Dutch life and mentality.
17. De pot verwijt de ketel dat die zwart ziet
Literal translation: The pot blames the cattle for looking black
This idiom is often used to describe a situation in which someone criticizes another person for something they themselves are also guilty of — similar to the English saying “the pot calling the kettle black”.
For example, if someone who is always late for meetings complains about someone else being late, someone might say “De pot verwijt de ketel dat die zwart ziet” to point out the hypocrisy of the situation.
18. Iets onder de knie hebben
Literal translation: To have something under the knee
This saying is used to describe having mastered a particular skill or having learned how to do something well.
This saying is thought to have originated from horse riding, where a rider would need to have good control of the horse and keep it steady by gripping it under the knee.
19. Maak je borst maar nat
Literal translation: Make your chest wet
This saying is used to warn someone that they are in for a difficult or unpleasant time, and that they should prepare themselves for it.
This is a bit similar to warning someone in English that they “have their work cut out for them”.
20. Laatste loodjes
Literal translation: The final weights
This is used to describe the final stage of a project or task.
It comes from the saying “De laatste loodjes wegen het zwaarst” or “The final weights are the heaviest”. It means that the final stage of a job is the most difficult.
E.g. “We zijn bijna klaar met de verbouwing, nu de laatste loodjes nog.”
We’re almost done with the renovation, we just need to finish up the final tasks.
21. Doe normaal
Literal translation: Do normal / act normal
This is a shortened version of the Dutch saying “Doe maar normaal, dan doe je al gek genoeg” or “Just act normal, that’s already crazy enough”.
This saying reflects the Dutch cultural value of “doe maar gewoon,” which emphasizes the importance of modesty and avoiding excessive displays of wealth or success.
Learning Dutch is always a fun challenge, but it can be especially tricky when it comes to all these idioms and sayings which you’ll undoubtedly hear in spoken Dutch.
Make a habit of learning the most common ones, and you’ll be well on your way! As the Dutch like to say, een goed begin is het halve werk.
Let me know what common Dutch idioms and expressions you use or hear on a regular basis!