21 Dutch idioms and sayings that native speakers actually use

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.

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw

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.

Een frisse neus halen

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 handNothing 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 handThere 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 meterIt doesn’t make sense at all
Ik vertrouw hem voor geen meterI 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.

Iets onder de knie hebben

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.

Final thoughts

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!

6 thoughts on “21 Dutch idioms and sayings that native speakers actually use”

  1. Why is your Dutch learning website in English? shouldn’t it be in Dutch? Now i understand there might be a good reason for you to have the UI ,about be and English articles etc in English such as you don’t want to overwhelm beginners, however there should be an option to change it into Dutch.

    If you don’t have time to write an article in 2 languages and you had to choose only one. It would benefit people the most if you wrote it in Dutch not English.

    No need to reply just something to think about.

  2. I’m thankful you write this in English as the Dutch know this already but we Dutch-Canadians love to learn some of these sayings but don’t know Dutch well enough. Thabk you.

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