Learning Dutch can be rewarding, and enjoyable. Still, it is undeniably difficult! The task might seem especially arduous when you are just starting out, and covering the basics. If you are finding learning numbers, colors and days of the week a bit dry, read on. Below is a list of essential Dutch expressions, translated and explained. You are likely to come across at least a few of them during your time in the Netherlands, and it will be helpful to resign a couple to memory. This will not only impress your Dutch neighbors! Understanding these sayings and their origins is a lively and interactive way of learning the language. It’s also a great means of gaining a real insight into the mindset of the Dutch as a people.
Very Dutch Expressions
1. ‘Doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg’ : ‘Just behave normally; this is already crazy enough’
The translation says it all!
2. ‘Heb ik wat van je aan?’ : ‘Am I wearing something of yours’?
When you look at a Dutch person too fixedly, they may ask you this. It is a rhetorical question, and it is not meant kindly. You are being reprimanded for staring too much
3. ‘Daarom’ (pronounced: ‘derooom’) : ‘Exactly’
This is technically an expression of concurrence. However, it usually has little to do with what the other speaker has just said. It’s either an excuse to take over the conversation, or a means of masking the fact that you haven’t been listening
4. I’k zeg maar zo, ik zeg maar niks’ : ‘I’ll just say I say nothing’
This is a textbook example of the Dutch ‘poldermodel‘ mindset. It is a prudent way of expressing that you are non-committal, or on the fence about something
5. ‘Dat kan niet’ : ‘It can’t be done’
This phrase will be unpleasantly familiar to any expat who has run up against Dutch bureaucracy. It simply means: ‘impossible’
6. ‘Doe effe normaal’ : Literally, this translates as ‘Do normal’
This saying was made famous by Geert Wilders, who said it to the prime minister in parliament. Essentially, it is a command that says: ‘behave’. This expression is indicative of the Dutch wish to appear ‘normal’, and to never stand out too much
7. ‘Doe je dat (bij je moeder) thuis ook?’ : ‘Do you do that (in front of your mother) at home too?’
Often used by train staff, when they see people resting their feet on the seat opposite them, this is a means of expressing dissatisfaction with someone’s behavior
8. ‘Op één been kun je niet lopen’ : ‘You can’t walk on one leg’
This is used to encourage someone to have another drink
9. ‘Kinderen die vragen worden overgeslagen’ : ‘Children who ask won’t get anything’
This is a typical Calvinistic expression that has, happily, fallen into disuse. Its meaning is self-evident
10. ‘Hoge bomen vangen veel wind’ : ‘High trees catch a lot of wind’
This is a neat way of expressing a very Dutch societal custom: people who distinguish themselves will attract criticism
11. ‘Ben je in de kerk geboren?’ : ‘Were you born in a church?’
If you fail to shut the door on leaving a room, you might be asked this question in the Netherlands. The questioner means: are you used to living in a building without a door, or with an open door policy? It is a gentle criticism
12. ‘Die is niet goed in z’n bovenkamer’ : ‘He is not well in his upstairs room’
This means: he is nuts!
13. ‘Hij ziet ze vliegen’ : ‘He can see them flying’
The Dutch like having euphemisms for this eventuality. Again, this means: he is crazy
Dutch Words that Made it into English
You may have laughed at a few of the above expressions, but Dutch and English are not as different as you may think! Here are a few Dutch words that have percolated into the English language:
1. ‘Baas’ : ‘Boss‘
The true origin of the word is a bit of a mystery. However, in the 17th century, there existed a Dutch ship’s captain, called ‘baas’
2. ‘Vrolijk’ : ‘Frolic’
This word refers to playful, lighthearted movement
3. ‘Grof’ : ‘Gruff’
Meaning ‘coarse’, and often used to describe a rough or harsh voice in English, this word has also come to mean ‘direct’. Being conversationally direct is another very Dutch characteristic!
4. ‘Kielhalen’ : ‘Keelhauling’
This is one of the many nautical terms the seafaring Dutch contributed to the English language. Others include: Sloep: ‘sloop’, yacht: ‘yacht’, schoener: ‘schooner’ and ‘wrak’ :’wreck’
5. ‘Kwakzalver’ : (shortened to)’Quack’
This term is used in English to describe a kind of phony doctor or healer. Have a look at Jan Steen’s version of one in the Rijksmuseum. His paintings provide an interesting peek into the lives of ordinary people in the 17th century Netherlands
6. ‘Koekje’ : ‘cookie‘
No explanation required- it’s essential to know this word in the Netherlands!
7. ‘Dijk’ : ‘Dike’
The Dutch have always talked about dikes a lot; so much so, that the word seeped into the English language!
8. ‘Droge waere’ : ‘Dry wares’
A ‘middle Dutch’ phrase, this term is a very antiquated way of referring to drugs
9. ‘Polder’ and ‘pomp’ : ‘Polder’ and ‘pump’
Another reference to the Dutch obsession with manoeuvring water around
10. ‘Apartheid’ : ‘Separateness’
A much more sober term that refers, of course, to the separation of races in society
11. ‘Sinterklaas‘ : ‘Santa Claus’
Our other name for father Christmas, originated from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas