Of scales and tetrachords

Yesterday I discussed the Byzantine scales and their construction from two equal tetrachords. This actually inspired another post.

What happens if we

  • do construct tetrachords that span a perfect fourth, but
  • only allow whole tones and semitones, and
  • we allow two different tetrachords in the scale?

Well, if we only allow whole tones and semitones, and the beginning and ending notes are fixed at a perfect fourth, leaving only the two middle notes movable, then you basically only have the following choices. I will notate their interval sequences in semitones (half-steps):

  • major: 2-2-1 (i.e., whole-whole-half — major second, major third, perfect fourth)
  • minor: 2-1-2 (whole-half-whole — major second, minor third, perfect fourth)
  • upper minor: 1-2-2 (half-whole-whole — minor second, minor third, perfect fourth)
  • harmonic: 1-3-1 (half-third-half—minor second, major third, perfect fourth)
  • [an odd-duck fifth member is the augmented tetrachord 2-2-2, which ends on an augmented rather than a perfect fourth]

From mixing and matching pairs of those four tetrachords (plus one odd duck), we can assemble the following:

  • major+major: Ionian mode or classical major scale. In medieval church music, this was actually called the “lascivious mode” for its association with sprightly dances.
  • major+minor: mixolydian mode (major with a flattened seventh). Very common in Anglo folk tunes and in rock and pop music derived from it. Example: “Get Back” by The Beatles. (BTW, it also contains all five notes of the major pentatonic.) [On the piano, playing a scale on the white keys but starting from G rather than C gives you G mixolydian  — G major would have had F# rather than F natural.]
  • minor+minor: dorian mode (minor with a raised sixth). Very common in Anglo folk tunes and in rock and pop music derived from it. Has a more ‘minor’ feel than the mixolydian. Examples: “What shall we do with the drunken sailor”,  “Scarborough fair”,… (BTW, it also contains all five notes of the minor pentatonic, which is the backbone of the blues “scale” — which is really more like an Indian raga rather than a scale.) [On the piano, playing a scale on the white keys, but starting from D rather than C, gives you D dorian — D minor would have had Bb rather than B natural.]
  • minor+upper minor: aeolian mode, or natural minor scale.
  • minor+augmented: harmonic minor scale. In Western classical music that follows common-practice harmony, the need for major chords on the dominant (fifth) step automatically requires accidentals to temporarily raise the seventh. Hence a classical piece “in X minor” actually will pop in and out of harmonic (and melodic) minor rather than stay in natural minor. Using minor chords on the dominant instead automatically will give the piece a “modal” (“churchy” or “folky”) feel.
  • minor+major: melodic minor scale (ascending). Unlike the harmonic minor scale, the “un-flattened” sixth eliminates the minor third. Generally, classical melodies in a minor scale follow melodic minor when ascending, and natural minor when descending, although the locally prevailing harmony may dictate variances from this.
  • upper minor+upper minor: Phrygian mode. This “more minor than minor” or “martial” scale has occasionally been used in Western classical music (e.g., “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets), and is fairly common in darker heavy metal tunes. (E.g., “Harvester of Sorrow” by Metallica, the opening of “Sails of Charon” by The Scorpions, the fast middle section of “Seventh Son” by Iron Maiden) Among film composers, Phrygian for battle scenes is something of a cliché.
  • harmonic+upper minor: Phrygian major, a.k.a. Flamenco scale, a.k.a. “Jewish scale”. This Phrygian mode with a raised third is indeed a staple of Flamenco music, but can also be heard in the synagogue (the ahava rabba mode), in klezmer music, and indeed in some heavy metal tunes — for example: “Forty-six and two” by Tool, or the opening of “Killing in the name of…” by Rage Against The Machine.
  • harmonic+harmonic: double-harmonic or “Byzantine” or “Arabic” scale. It can be derived from the previous mode by flattening the sixth. Used for an exotic feel by classical composers (Debussy was rather fond of it), and sometimes in hard rock and metal. Dick Dale‘s instrumental “surf music” classic “Misirlou” is a very nice illustration.

An odd duck in the above list is the Lydian mode, which is built from augmented+major tetrachords. In a sense “more major than major”, it’s rarely used for a whole piece (the theme from The Simpsons is one example of a popular tune in the Lydian mode), but episodically can be used to set a mood of hope or anticipation. An example is the verse of “Freewill” by Rush.

OK, I guess this is an excuse for posting two of my favorite tunes:



Making sense of Byzantine scales

A friend who had just returned from a trip to Greece played back some clips of Byzantine church music on her cell phone. I became intrigued by the peculiar scales I heard, so I did some digging. A lot became clearer from this academic paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, where a trio of Greek researchers discuss their findings recording and analyzing the singing of a number of well-known Greek Orthodox psaltes (cantors).
They note that in actual practice, cantors deviate from the prescriptive standards laid out by the Patriarchal Music Committee (1883), depending on musical context. (One can see similar phenomena in unaccompanied singing or solo violin playing.) But let me give you the “Cliff Notes” version on Byzantine church singing.
All Byzantine scales are based on four “genera” (plural of genus):
  • Diatonic
  • Chromatic mild
  • Chromatic strong
  • Enharmonic
[Note that, in context, these terms do not have the same meanings as in Western music theory.]
All four genera have the following in common:
  • scales span an octave (2/1)
  • scales are heptatonic, i.e., they have seven notes, the “eighth” note being the first note raised by one octave (just like the Western major and minor scales)
  • scales are made up of two identical tetrachords [rows of four notes] a perfect fifth (3/2) apart
  • each tetrachord spans a perfect fourth (4/3)
  • this leaves the two middle notes in each tetrachord movable
Unlike Arabic music (which is monophonic or heterophonic, and hence has no harmonic exigencies), Eastern Orthodox Church music has two or sometimes three voices. Hence harmony does enter the picture: Greek music theorists going back to Pythagoras, Didymos, Ptolemaeus,… have used rational fractions to define/describe musical intervals. (There is actually deep physics behind this idea: frequency ratios between overtones of a common fundamental.) In the case of Byzantine music, said ratios get, well… Byzantine.
So in 1883, the Patriarchal Music Committee (PMC) decided to create some order in the chaos by looking for an equal-temperament approximation to the clutter of micro-intervals. The closest fit they could find was 72-tone equal temperament (ET72): that is, dividing the octave into seventy-two equal steps called moria  (plural of “morio”, Greek for mote, trifle, molecule). One morio equals 2^(1/72)=1.009673533.
Note that ET72 contains as subsets both
  • ET12 (twelve-tone equal temperament, the Western standard for keyboard and fretted instruments): each semitone on the keyboard is six moria
  • ET24 (quarter-tone equal temperament, often used to describe Arabic maqamat [scales]): each quarter-tone is three moria
The PMC took the intervals of Byzantine vocal music and rounded them to the nearest integer number of moria. A perfect fifth then becomes 42 moria (seven ET12 semitones), a perfect fourth 30 moria (five ET12 semitones). The four Byzantine genera were then standardized to the following tetrachords (number of moria for each step given):
  • diatonic genus: 12-10-8
  • chromatic mild genus: 8-14-8
  • chromatic strong genus: 6-20-4
  • enharmonic genus: 12-12-6
Note that — unlike in ancient Greek music — the enharmonic genus is (after rounding) equivalent to the major scale in ET12! For comparison, let’s put up the tetrachords of some Western scales and modes that feature repeated tetrachords:
  • the major scale (a.k.a. Ionian mode):  in ET12 corresponds to 12-12-6, in just intonation: 12-11-7. So the Byzantine diatonic genus is like the major scale in [5-limit Ptolemaic] just intonation — except that the major third has been flattened one morio.
  • Dorian mode: 12-6-12 in ET12, approx. 11-7-12 in just intonation[For non-musicians: this mode is commonly heard in “minor”-sounding Anglo folk tunes and in rock/pop music deriving from it, as well as in modal jazz.]
  • Phrygian mode: 6-12-12 in ET12,7-12-11 in just intonation[For non-musicians: this very dark mode is fairly commonly heard in heavy metal, and its use in battle scenes in film music is something of a cliché.]
  • Double-harmonic (“Byzantine”) scale: 6-18-6 in ET12, approximately 7-16-7 in just intonation. Note how this looks a but similar to the “chromatic sharp” 6-20-4 genus of Byzantine music.
The “minor scale” (technically, the Aeolian or natural-minor mode) is absent here, as it has two different tetrachords — so does the mixolydian mode.  In my next post, I will explore how two different tetrachords can be used to construct many different musical scales and modes in the Western tradition, and how their “bright” or “dark” character can be rationalized through the tetrachords.

Dering v. Uris, QB VII, and Pyrrhic courtroom victories

Like many, I devoured Leon Uris’s Exodus as a teenager. By modern standards, it is a severe romantification of a story that hardly requires it (the great Jewish historian Howard Sachar described the book as “a shallow swashbuckler”), but there is no denying Exodus is an immensely entertaining read. Published in 1958, it not only became the greatest bestseller in US history since “Gone with the wind”, but became a samizdat (underground publishing) classic among Soviet Jews.

A single line in the book gave rise to one of the most remarkable libel trials of the 20th Century, Dering v. Uris and others. (See also Jack Winocour’s long 1964 article here.) The trial is thinly fictionalized in Uris’s later bestseller courtroom novel, QB VII (“Queen’s Bench Court Seven”).

The backstory of one of the main Exodus characters, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, contains this line about Auschwitz:

Here in Block X, Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr Schumann sterilised by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 `experiments’ in surgery without anaesthetics.

Auschwitz chief physician Eduard Wirths had committed suicide after his arrest, while Carl Clauberg had died of a stroke in pretrial detention and Horst Schumann had fled to Africa after the war. (At the time he was living in Sudan.)

Clauberg, a prewar gynecology professor of some renown, and Schumann, an undistinguished physician who had earlier been  a “veteran” of the mass euthanasia program Aktion T4, were carrying out experiments on human subjects trying to find an inexpensive method of mass sterilization, to be applied on the Reich’s slave labor population of so-called Untermenschen (subhumans). Clauberg favored injection of caustic chemicals into the womb — which were to cause blockage of the ovarian ducts through scarring —  Schumann irradiation. The ovaries and testicles of the irradiated prisoners were removed for pathological examination by Schumann himself and by two prisoner doctors, the German Jew Maximilian Samuel and the Pole Wladyslaw Dering (see Robert Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors”, pp. 246-249 for more about him).

Dering was a surgeon who had been imprisoned at the Auschwitz main camp for resistance activities. As Lifton tells the story (much of which came out during the libel trial), Dering at first enjoyed a good reputation among the prisoners, then became embroiled with the medical experimentation, and eventually was taken away by Clauberg to come work at his private clinic in Silesia. (In order to enable his release from the camp, Dering is said to have been administratively declared a Volksdeutsche — an ethnic German.)

After the war, Dering  had made it to England with the help of fellow Poles in the British army. He actually spent a year and a half in prison there following an extradition request by (now Communist) Poland. After a witness, who had been castrated at Auschwitz, was unable to recognize During (he had in fact been ‘operated’ upon by another prisoner doctor), the request was denied on grounds of mistaken identity. Following his release, Dering worked as a physician for the British Colonial Service in Somalia (then a British protectorate) for about a decade, before eventually being knighted (OBE) and returning to London to work as a physician for the NHS.

Following publication of Exodus, Dering was confronted with his past when his wife Maria and her daughter from a previous marriage came across the offending passage while reading Exodus. Dering took legal counsel and eventually sued  printer, publisher, and author for libel.  The printers quickly issued a note of apology;  Uris and his publisher (William Kimber, Ltd.), on the other hand, decided to fight the libel case on grounds of substantial truth.

Dering’s complaint was that, while he had completed operations, it was nowhere near 17,000 and he never did so without anaesthetic. He also said that he obeyed Nazi physicians’ orders under threat of death. The printer issued an apology and settled with Dering. The other two went to court and ran truth as a defence. It was the Holocaust on trial again.

While Uris and his publisher admitted that they could not prove 17,000 operations, they did proffer a list of 130 individuals on whom shocking operations were performed.

Uris’ solicitor took 2 years to compile evidence and find witnesses.

The trial was held before a jury of 12 (10 men, 2 women) in Queen’s Bench Court VII. It lasted 18 days, having started on 1 April 1964. It was conducted in Greek, Polish, Hebrew, English, German, French and Ladino. The judge was Justice Horace Lawton. Lord Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor of England, appeared for Uris and the publisher.


The plaintiff called 7 witnesses, some of whom were fellow Polish prisoners. The defendants called 22 witnesses from Auschwitz.


Some of the evidence on behalf of the defendants included this:

  • In October 1943, 10-12 Greek girls aged 15-19 had ovariectomies conducted on them without any medical, physical, psychological or legitimate reason;
  • In 1943 Dr Dering removed 1 or both testicles from 12 young males for no legitimate reason; See British Medical Journal Vol 1, 5393 16 May 1964.
  • 8 witnesses gave evidence of having received ovariectomies;
  • 6 gave evidence whose testicles had been removed;
  • A list was obtained from the Auschwitz Prison Hospital Register. It included the names of 130 people who received surgical operations, where Dering was either the surgeon or assistant. The list was at least partly in Dering’s handwriting.
  • While the defendants could not show that Dering operated without anaesthetic, there was evidence that operations were conducted under painful spinal anaesthetic that left the patient conscious;
  • 3 prisoner doctors gave evidence for the defendants: Dr Kleinova, Dr Breuda and the defendants’ star witness, Dr Adelaide Hautval.

Dr. Adelaide Hautval (who appears as “Susanne Parmentier” in QB VII) was a French psychiatrist (the youngest daughter of a Protestant minister) who had been arrested for aiding Jews and sent to the Auschwitz main camp. (“If you love the Jews, you will share their fate,” she was told.) After the war, she was made an Knight in the French Legion of Honor for her resistance and humanitarian activities in the camp, and Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous Gentile” on her. Recently a geriatric hospital in the Paris suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel was renamed in her honor.

Dr. Hautval quickly discovered that the project entailed inhuman experiments, performed without anesthesia, on Jewish women prisoners. She told Dr. Wirth that she would not participate in his experiments and added that no person was entitled to claim the life or determine the fate of another. When forced to assist in the surgical sterilization of a young woman from Greece, Dr. Hautval told Dr. Wirth that she would never again attend such a procedure. When Wirth asked Dr. Hautval: “Don’t you see that these people are different from you?” she replied, “In this camp, many people are different from me. You, for example.”

Notably, Dr. Hautval was not even punished for her refusal. This demolished Dering’s argument that whatever he had done, he had done under pains of death. (Admittedly, Hautval was somewhat safer as she was racially considered an Aryan, while Dering was still considered a Slav.)

Technically, Dering “won” the trial, but was awarded “the smallest coin of the realm”, one-half penny, in damages. Dering was also assessed the hefty costs of the trial (about 30,000 pounds, or 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s money). He died one year later.

As mentioned above, Leon Uris turned the experience, and the massive amount of documentation he had gathered, into the bestselling QB VII. While including some dramatic license as well as some romantic subplots, the novel in general sticks so close to the actual trial as to qualify as a roman à clef. The fictional concentration camp “Jadwiga” and its satellite extermination camp “Jadwiga West” are clearly stand-ins for Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), respectively. “Adam Kelno” was a colonial physician in Sumatra rather than Africa, but otherwise appears to substantially be based on Dering. “Abraham Cady”, the womanizing fighter pilot turned writer, was of course the fictionalization of Uris. “Thomas Bannister”, a “future Prime Minister” (rather than Lord Chancellor) is of course based on  Gerald Gardiner, and so on. The Jewish prisoner doctor Boris Dimshits was elderly, suffered from eczema, and was sent to the gas chamber when no longer able to operate well enough — just like the real-life Maximilian Samuel. (According to Lifton, the cooperation of the latter — a decorated WW I veteran — had been secured by false promises his 19-year old daughter would be spared. )

One lurid detail about the medical “examinations” — too obscene to be repeated on a somewhat family-friendly blog — that I was convinced had been added by Uris for dramatic effect,  turns out to be based on an actual “invention” of Horst Schumann. In general, despite some minor glitches (such as the cringe-worthy nonsense IDF rank of “Sergent (Captain)” when “Seren” is clearly meant), the book was as thoroughly researched and fact-checked as one could hope to see before the Internet and Google era. Possibly in order to forestall another libel suit, Uris did, however, make sure to use fictional names wherever he could, and some character names are linguistically so improbable that they appear to have been chosen deliberately to ensure nobody with that background would bear said name.

Some suspense is created in the novel with the hunt for Egon Sobotnik and his medical log book: in fact, the log book was obtained from the Auschwitz memorial site, although its role was as central to the real as to the fictional trial. While the fictional Sobotnik is the key witness in QB VII, the testimony of Dr. Adelaide Hautval’s fictional stand-in “Suzanne Parmentier”s is given pride of place, and contains extensive word-for-word quotes from Hautval’s at the real-life trial.

King Pyrrhus, after winning a battle at enormous cost in lives, is supposed to have said “One more such ‘victory’ and I am undone”. If there ever was a case of a Pyrrhic victory at a libel trial, it would be this.

Colorful Dutch idioms and expressions, Part 3

In the final installment of this series, a few more expressions that didn’t make it into Part 1 and Part 2, most of them inspired by the animal kingdom.

Waiting for roast chickens to fall into your mouth. (wachten tot de gebraden kippen in je mond vallen.) Awaiting success and prosperity without making adequate effort toward them.

Which the dogs won’t eat bread of. (Waar de honden geen brood van lusten.) Said of an acrimoniously worded letter or speech, etc.

Having as much understanding of [something] as a cow of eating saffron/of painting. (Evenveel verstand van [iets] hebben als een koe van saffraan eten/van schilderkunst.) Knowing jack all about [something], being clueless about [something].

[looking] Like a cow that sees a passing train (als een koe die een trein ziet voorbijrijden): (1) looking clueless; (2) being taken by surprise, “like a deer in the headlights”. (More Flemish/”Zuidnederlands” than standard Dutch usage.)

Two guys and a horse’s head. (Twee man en een paardekop.) A[n audience/turnout of a] handful of people; ten people and a dog. Also “one and a half guys and a horse’s head” (anderhalve man en een paardekop).

[That fits/matches] like pliers and a pig. (Dat past als een tang op een varken.) Spectacularly, garishly mismatched.

Like a dog [walking though] a bowling game. (Als een hond in een kegelspel.) Unwelcome or unwanted; like a fifth wheel; spare organ at a wedding.

To send one’s cat. (Zijn kat sturen.) Not showing up.

Sparing the cabbage and the goat. (De kool en de geit sparen.) Having one’s cake and eating it too.

Forward the goat! (Vooruit met de geit!) Get on with it!

You can’t pluck a bald chicken/You can’t skin a pebble. (Je kan een kale kip niet pluimen/Je kan niet van men key het vel afstropen.) You can’t skin a stone/extract money from somebody who has none.

We’re lodged at the Monkey Inn. (We zijn in den aap gelogeerd.) We’ve been had/we’re hosed.

A donkey that poops money. (Een ezeltje dat geld schijt.) (1) a source of “rent”/easy money; (2) Ironically, the nonexistent finance of a fiscally unsustainable plan: “What’s going to pay for this, a donkey that poops money?”

That’s goat’s b-llocks. (Dat is kloten van de bok.) This sucks big time. [Dutch can get pretty graphic. “Kloten”/”b-llocks” plays a similar ‘all-purpose expletive’ role in Dutch as the f-word in English.]

Calling a cat a cat. (Een kat een kat noemen.) Saying it like it is, calling things by their name without sugarcoating.

When they want to beat a dog, a stick is readily found. (Als men een hond wil slaan vindt men licht een stok.) If they’re out to “get” somebody, they’ll find some pretext or another.

Little Barber must hang. (Barbertje moet hangen.) His fate’s already been decided: the trial is just for show, and even if he’s found innocent they’ll trump up another charge. From a parable in the classic 19th Century novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli (more in Dutch); said parable was itself inspired by a scene in Act IV of the German Enlightenment play “Nathan The Wise” by Lessing.

A more Pythonesque version:



He knows where Abraham found the mustard. (Hij went waar Abraham de mosterd gevonden heeft.) (1) He has the straight dope; (2) he knows what it’s all about. The “mosterd” is a corruption of the archaic Dutch word “mutsaard” for a pile of firewood (or shrub wood collected for the same purpose)—both of which appear in the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22:1-19).


Colorful Dutch idioms and expressions, Part 2

The slightly more serious sequel to yesterday’s post.

Choosing eggs for your money. (Eieren voor je geld kiezen.) Choosing the best of a bad bunch; choosing the least unpalatable alternative. Compare French: choisir entre le mal et le pire.

Fitting a sleeve to something. (Een mouw aan iets passen.) Make something work; come up with a workaround for something.

Rowing with the oars you’ve got. (Roeien met de riemen die je hebt.) Making do with available resources; making the best of the situation.

[looking] Like a cow that sees a passing train (als een koe die een trein ziet voorbijrijden): (1) looking clueless; (2) being taken by surprise, “like a deer in the headlights”. (More Flemish/”Zuidnederlands” than standard Dutch usage.)

That’s still standing in children’s shoes. (Dat staat nog in de kinderschoenen.) This is still in its infancy; that’s not yet ready for prime time; that [technology] is “for early adopters only”.

Childhood diseases. (Kinderziekten.) Metaphorically, “teething troubles” of a new technology or device.

Hanging something off the big bell. (Iets aan de grote klok hangen.) Shouting something from the rooftops, publicizing something all over. From the days when church bells were rung to announce great tidings or calamities.

Turning over every dime. (Elk dubbeltje omdraaien, kwartjes in twee bijten.) Being very frugal.

Biting quarters in two. (Kwartjes in twee bijten.) Being excessively frugal (even by alleged Dutch standards).

Hopping out of the dance. (De dans ontspringen.) Escaping in the nick of time.

He’s been hit by the mill. (Hij heeft een slag van de molen gehad.) He’s a few sandwiches short of a picknick/a few bytes short of a valid checksum; he’s addle-brained.

[Tastes] like a little angel peeing on my tongue. (Alsof een engeltje over mijn tong piest.) Tastes awesome (usually said of beverages).

Living like G-d in France. (Leven als G-d in Frankrijk.) Living carefree and in the lap of luxury.

Living on a big foot. (Leven op grote voet.) Living high on the hog.

Putting the flowers out. (De bloemetjes buitenzetten.) Go out celebrating.

Holding a hand over someone’s head. (De hand boven iemand’s hoofd houden.) Covering for somebody, keeping somebody as a protégé.

Breaking a lance for somebody. (Een lans voor iemand breken.) Going to bat for somebody, standing up for somebody. From medieval jousting tournaments, presumably.

Putting somebody in the little sun. (Iemand in het zonnetje zetten.) Singling someone out for public praise.

Can be glued with a wet finger (is met een natte vinger te lijmen). Is very gullible. “Lijmen” (to glue) is also used metaphorically for “to butter up”.

When the shepherd is astray, his sheep will wander. (Als de herder verdwaalt dolen de schapen.) When leadership is weak or indecisive…

We’ve been kosher-slaughtered. (We zijn gesjochten.) Our goose is cooked; we’re done; we’re f—ed. From Yiddish shoichet or shechter [Jewish ritual slaughterer]. I will dedicate a separate post to the many Yiddish-derived idioms in Dutch.

Getting a fresh nose. (Een frisse neus halen.) Going out for some fresh air.

Always mourning and marrying. (Altijd rouwen en trouwen.) Life always has good and bad times; we have to take the good with the bad.

Sucking something out of his thumb. (Iets uit zijn duim zuigen.) Making something up out of whole cloth; pulling something out of his behind.

Cat in the box. (Kat in ‘t bakkie.) Easy-peasy.

Like a penny whistle. (Als een fluitje van een cent.) (1) Easy-peasy; (2) “like a walk in the park” [compared to something more serious].

It runs like off a slate roof. (Het gaat van een leien dakje.) Everything is going smoothly. Conversely: Het gaat niet van een leien dakje: this ain’t easy.

What do I have hanging off my bike? (Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen.) What am I dealing with this time?

Needed like bread. (Broodnodig.) Highly necessary, crucial, essential. I remember a joke about some losing soccer team supposedly having hired two new Danish coaches: Høgnødig and Brødnødig.

Working oneself into nests. (Zich in nesten werken.) Getting oneself into trouble; getting caught up in (needless) complications. From what bird’s nests can do to the mechanics of a windmill.

Being well-beaked. (Goed gebekt zijn.) Being eloquent; having the gift of gab.

Too many notes in his tune (Teveel noten op zijn zang.) Making too many demands, too big for his britches.

When Easter falls on a Friday/When Easter and Pentecost fall on the same day/On St.-Juttemis [nonexistent].) (Als Pasen op een vrijdag valt/Als Pasen en Pinksteren samenvallen/Op Sint-Juttemis.) When Hell freezes over; never.

Getting Spanishly anxious. (Het Spaans benauwd krijgen.) From the Spanish occupation of the Lowlands in the 16th Century, culminating in the Eighty-Year War and the split between (Catholic) Flanders and the newly independent (Protestant) Netherlands.

The wages of the world are ingratitude. (Ondank is ‘s wereld’s loon.) Also: gratitude is a little flower that grows in few gardens. (Dankbaarheid is een bloemetje dat in weinig hoven bloeit.) Compare:

Colorful Dutch idioms and metaphors, Part 1

In honor of April Fools Day, here is a post on some colorful and/or humorous idioms in the Dutch language. The Dutch sense of humor is very earthy — often venturing into the unprintable, but not always so. Being historically a nation of seafarers and merchants, as well as of farmers reclaiming land from the sea, nautical, agricultural, and trade metaphors often recur in idioms.

Note I am not making any of these up, despite the day: Rest assured even the drollest idioms below were still in common use as I was growing up, and most of them still are.


Animals and agriculture

Talking about little cows and calves. (Over koetjes en kalfjes praten): engaging in smalltalk.

The odd duck in the raft (De vreemde eend in de bijt.) The odd man out.

Now the monkey pops out of the sleeve. (Nu komt de aap uit de mouw.): now we find out what’s really going on; now they show their true colors.

We’ll wash that little pig. (We wassen dat varkentje wel.): We’ll take care of that.

Watching for the cat to come down from the tree. (De kat uit de boom kijken.) Waiting for the other party to make a move. From the behavior of a dog who’s chased a cat into a tree.

Pleasing somebody with a dead sparrow. (Iemand blij maken met een dode mus.) Placating somebody with a concession or benefit of no real value.

You can get rid of your egg here. (Hier kan je je ei kwijt.) Here you can speak freely, say what’s on your mind.

That one won’t lay him any wind eggs. (Dat zal hem geen windeieren leggen.) This will be a lucrative investment. “Wind eggs”, i.e. eggs with missing or defective shells, obviously cannot be gathered and sold.

Now my clog is breaking. (Nou breekt mijn klomp.) Now I’m completely stumped, now I really don’t get it.

Why are bananas bent? (Waarom zijn de bananen krom?) Metaphor for a pointless question nobody needs to know the answer to. Also: Why does a donkey have two long ears? (Waarom heeft een ezel twee lange oren?)


The best helmsmen are always ashore. (De beste stuurlui staan altijd aan wal.) Those who don’t do always know better than you; those who can’t, teach.

Fishing behind the dragnet. (Achter het net vissen.) Being on a wild goose chase; wasting futile efforts. Like trying to fish behind a trawled dragnet, where there would be no fish left.

This adds no sods to the levée/dike. (Dit zet geen zoden aan de dijk.) This doesn’t help any/doesn’t add anything/isn’t helpful. A large portion of Dutch landmass has been patiently reclaimed from the sea since the Middle Ages, and dikes as well as windmills were a central part of that.


Handing out the sheets. (De lakens uitdelen.) Being in charge. From medieval days, when textile manufacturing was a cottage industry.

He didn’t eat any of that cheese. (Daar heeft hij geen kaas van gegeten.) He doesn’t know jack about the subject.

Wanting ringside seats for a dime/to sit in the front row for a dime. (Voor een dubbeltje op de eerste rij willen zitten.) Demanding or expecting an unrealistically good deal.

Getting a cookie of your own dough. (Een koekje van eigen deeg krijgen.) Getting a dose of your own medicine.

It’s for the baker. (‘t Is voor de bakker.) That’s essentially done/taken care of. (When the kneaded dough is handed to the baker, most of the work has been done.)

Every little cheese has its little holes. (Elk kaasje heeft zijn gaatje.) Nobody/nothing is perfect.


Struggling like a devil in a holy water basin. (Zich weren als een duivel in een wijwatervat.) Resisting like mad.

The bullet went through the church. (De kogel is door de kerk.): the decision has been made, the parties are committed. Historically, there was a tacit agreement that churches were not fired upon in battle: when this did happen, it meant the belligerent was going for broke.


Disappearing like snow under the sun. (Verdwijnen als sneeuw voor de zon.) Metaphor for supplies, resources, or cash reserves being depleted rapidly.

Tall trees catch a lot of wind. (Hoge bomen vangen veel wind.) (1) Successful people generate a lot of envy. (2) Tall poppies stick out and catch flak.

For free, you get the sunrise. (Voor niets gaat de zon op.) TANSTAAFL — There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.