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.