These fun Dutch facts will plunge you into Dutch culture: From understanding Dutch abbreviations and diminutives to their obsession with licorice and chip sauces.
From A to K, Radio Netherlands Worldwide delves into Dutch culture to give you some inside knowledge on understanding Dutch culture.
As a foreigner trying to get to grips with the Dutch language and their abbreviations, it sometimes seems like the locals are conspiring against you by sprinkling their sentences with random clumps of letters.
Occasionally these cryptic additions seem like they might be words — miv, muv, tov. Sometimes they defy any attempt at pronunciation — zgn, vnl, ipv. And some just look like a cry for help — aub, eea.
Never fear! The Dutch aren’t messing with your mind on purpose. They just love their abbreviations. So, miv, muv and tov aren’t Donald Duck’s Jewish nephews but a quick way of saying ‘starting at’, ‘except for’ and ‘in relation to’ (met ingang van, met uitzondering van, ten opzichte van).
Whoever typed zgn, vnl and ipv wasn’t having a keyboard meltdown but was actually using much-loved abbreviations for ‘so-called’, ‘mainly’ and ‘instead of’ (zogenaamd, voornamelijk, in plaats van).
It may look a bit blunt, but aub is actually a polite – if concise – way of saying ‘please’, while eea is an abbreviated catchall phrase referring back to anything that has been mentioned previously (alstublieft, een en ander).
Keeping it short is a tendency that runs through all aspects of Dutch society. Even Dutch celebrities are cut down to size and become BN-ers, short for Bekende Nederlander or ‘well-known Dutch person’.
Gin was invented in the Netherlands. It was – and still is – called ‘jenever‘ (pronounced yeh-NAY-ver) and was originally used for medicinal purposes in the 16th century. The juniper berry, which is used to mask the flavour, comes from the juniper bush, a protected plant.
From an early age Dutch children are brought up with the saying, “Op 1 April verloor Alva zijn bril.” Literally translated it means ‘on 1 April Alba lost his glasses’. But in actual fact it refers to the Spanish Duke of Alba losing the town of Den Briel to the Dutch in 1572. It was an important historical battle in the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648).
The average Dutch person bikes 2.5km per day and 900km per year (more here). At that rate it would take our Amsterdam colleagues 12 days to cycle into Hilversum.
Bicycle = fiets
The Dutch word for bicycle is fiets (pronounced ‘feets’) – and nobody really knows why. In most languages, the etymology is obvious – the English bicycle, meaning ‘two wheels’, the French vélocipède, meaning ‘fast feet’, the German fahrrad, meaning ‘ride wheel’.
This was originally the case in Dutch as well – the bicycle was officialy known as a rijwiel or ‘ride wheel’. This term can still be found in combination with other words such as rijwielhandelaar or ‘bicycle store’.
Some people say the word fiets came from EC Viets, a bicycle-maker in the 1880s, but it appears that the term was in use 10 years earlier. Others suggest it is a corruption of the French word for speed, vitesse, or even the French word for bicycle, vélocipède. Still others say that it’s an onomatopoeic word that simply sounds like a fast-moving bicycle: ffts. It has also been suggested that the word fiets is derived from vietsen, meaning ‘to move quickly’ in Dutch dialect
In any case, bicycles are a part of Dutch daily life and the word fiets has made its way into many common expressions. Here are a few typical examples:
- Op díe fiets. Literally: On that bicycle. Figuratively: Oh, that’s what you mean!
- Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen? Literally: What’s hanging on my bike? Figuratively: What’s going on? What’s happening? (Said by someone who is ‘really’ surprised.)
- Geef mijn fiets terug. Literally: Give me my bike back. Figuratively: It’s a joke referring to WWII when the Germans confiscated many Dutch bicycles; it’s used to make fun of Germans.
- Snel door heen fietsen. Literally: To cycle quickly on. Figuratively: To go through something quickly, as in an agenda item on a meeting.
- Op een oude fiets moet je het leren. Literally: You have to learn on an old bicycle. Figuratively: Young people should learn about sex with an older (trusted) lover.
Amsterdam has more than 1,280 bridges. This means that crossing one bridge a day, it would take you 3.5 years to go across each one of them just once. Luckily there is no one-bridge-a-day-limit. More here.
Cake for breakfast
Like most cultures, the Dutch have many different options for breakfast, including cereal or bread with cold cuts, cheese, or sweet toppings (such as jam, chocolate spread or hagelslag – see below). But the Dutch also often eat ontbijtkoek (breakfast cake), also known as peperkoek (pepper cake) or kruidkoek (spice cake).
This ‘cake’ is more like a dense, sticky bread. The taste is sweet but strong, and the cake includes spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. A local northern variation is flavoured with aniseed and curiously called ‘oudewijvenkoek’ (old hag’s cake).
Ontbijtkoek is a traditional home remedy for tummy troubles and is reported to have laxative properties, so best beware.
While breakfast cake can be eaten as-is, it’s often served slathered in butter or sandwiched between two slices of bread! Yes, really, a cake sandwich.
Orange carrots appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. It has been said they were bred for the House of Orange, who led the Dutch revolt against Spain and later became the Dutch royal family.
Orange is still the official colour of the Netherlands (just check out the sea of orange on this Google image search for the Dutch national football team).
After the Scandinavians, the Dutch are the world’s biggest coffee drinkers. The Dutch were the first to import coffee to Europe on a large scale back in the 1600s and 1700s and were the first to add coffee into the fair-trade movement in 1988 with the Max Havelaar brand.
Johan Cruyff is not only famous for his football, but also for his idiosyncratic one-liners that were a combination of brilliant insight and stating the obvious. Even the most ardent football hater is familiar with at least some of Cruyff’s sayings, which are now known as Cruyff-isms.
His best known one-liner, De bal is rond (The ball is round), means that the outcome of something is unpredictable.
Other much-quoted one-liners are:
- Every advantage has its disadvantage.
- Without the ball you can’t win.
- Always make sure you score one more goal than the opposition.
- Look, you have to at least get the ball between the posts.
Dutch people have the lowest incidence of lactose intolerance of any country – only 1 percent. Why? Milk products form a large part of the staple diet – even that of adults.
The Dutch love their diminutives. Where we might call a cute dog a ‘doggy’, or a cute cat a ‘kitty’, the Dutch add the diminutive ‘je‘ ending to the noun. For example, a dog – hond – or cat – kat – becomes a hondje or a katje. But it doesn’t stop at cute things. Even a table – tafel – or a glass of beer – bier – could be a tafeltje or a biertje.
It goes so far that some words can no longer be separated from their diminutive. For example, nobody would ever say een goed woord doen – to put in a good word – instead of een goed woordje doen.
Some diminutives have even developed a separate, or totally different, meaning from their root word such as brood and broodje – a loaf of bread and a bread roll – or stuk and stukje – a beautiful woman and a piece of something.
There are some words, usually collective or uncountable nouns, that would never been diminutive-ised, for example, the government – regering – would never be called the regerinkje and electricity – electriciteit – would never be called electriciteitje. Serious functions are also never referred to in the diminutive, for example a birth, marriage or funeral would never be a geboortetje, huwelijkje or begrafenisje.
Occasionally, the diminutive can be used in a dismissive, belittling way, such as agentje, for a self-important policeman who gave you a ticket you didn’t like.
Watch a video of the famous Dutch performer Wim Sonneveld stringing a whole lot of diminutives together for – if you understand Dutch – comic effect. For the non-Dutch-speakers, just listen for the je – sounds like ‘chuh’ – throughout.
The Dutch love their drop – that’s Dutch for licorice. To give you an idea of how much they like this salty-sweet candy, the Dutch eat an average of 2kg of drop per person per year. Though there are more than 80 ‘typical’ kinds of licorice in the Netherlands, and most grocery stores devote almost as much space to licorice as to chocolate and other candy combined, there are some basics that any licorice lover should know.
Typical drop flavours:
- engelse drop – in English these are called allsorts; they are mixed shapes and most have a coconut or sugar candy layer.
- zoute drop – ‘salty licorice’; these are made with salmiak (ammonium chloride) to give a salty flavour.
- dubbelzoute drop – ‘double salty licorice’; this is just extra, extra salty, and an acquired taste.
- zoete drop – sweet licorice.
- laurierdrop – bay leaf licorice.
- salmiakdrop – salmiak licorice; slightly different from zoute drop, these are usually hard candies with the salty salmiak flavour from ammonium chloride.
- honingdrop – honey licorice; usually taken as a cough candy.
- mintdropjes – mint drop; usually with a mint candy coating.
Typical drop shapes:
- boerderijdrop – shaped like a boerderij, farmhouse.
- muntdrop – shaped like munt, coins.
- katjesdrop – shaped like katten, kittens.
- dropveters – shaped like veters, laces.
- griotten – soft, light brown cubes, the size of small sugar cubes and coated in sugar.
- kokindjes – similar but black and not coated in sugar.
The Netherlands is not known for its earthquakes. In fact, one September when a 4.5-magnitude tremor shook the southeast of the country, many people assumed it was just a heavy truck. But, actually, Holland experiences many small earthquakes each year, particularly around Groningen.
In fact, on this Google map from the Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut (Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute), you can see the epicentra of the last earthquakes in and around the Netherlands, and see how far back the oldest one dates.
The worst earthquake in Dutch history – and the strongest in Western Europe since 1756 – occurred on 13 April, 1992 near the city of Roermond in the south of the Netherlands. The so-called Roermond Earthquake had a magnitude of 5.4. The damage was limited by the depth of the quake (17km) and was estimated at 275 million guilders (EUR 124 million).
To put these numbers in perspective, an earthquake of magnitude 2.0–2.9 is considered ‘very minor’ – most people won’t even notice and there are about a thousand per day around the world. A 4.0–4.9 quake is considered ‘light’ – objects in houses are disturbed but nothing is damaged and they occur about 6,000 times a year. An earthquake in Japan a few years back was an 8.9. This is considered ‘great’ – there will be massive damage, huge cracks in the ground, and toppled buildings. These happen roughly once every 20 years.
If you live in the Netherlands and experince an earthquake, you can notify the KNMI through their online form (link in Dutch).
Eindhoven, City of Light
The Dutch city of Eindhoven is also known as the City of Light – because the electronics giant Philips started there and some of its first products were light bulbs. Philips is well-represented throughout the city – in fact, the ‘PSV’ in the Eindhoven’s football team name actually refers to the Philips Sport Club (Vereniging). Interestingly, on Dutch TV – which was non-commercial at the time – they never referred to the company name, instead calling Philips a ‘light bulb manufacturer in the south of the country’. In 2011, Eindhoven was dubbed the smartest city in the world by the Intelligent Community Forum ICF in New York. Read more about Eindhoven and where to live in this ‘smart’ Dutch city here.
Evening four-day marches
Thousands of Dutch school children and their parents spend four evenings in a row during May and June trudging through streets and along footpaths in huge processions, walking 5–10km at a time. It’s called the avondvierdaagse, or ‘evening four-day marches’.
It’s not a protest march or usually even a sponsored walk. It’s just for the satisfaction of saying you’ve done it. And supposedly for the exercise. But more importantly, for the famous Dutch gezelligheid of joining in and doing it all together.
Traditional refreshment on the way is a half a lemon with a peppermint laid on the cut side, wrapped in muslin. The children slurp on their minty lemons, slowly reducing them to slobbery pulp. They also carry improbably vast supplies of sweets on strings around their necks.
The whole parade is accompanied by lots of singing to pass the time. The best known marching song is Potje met vet, the endlessly repeating lyrics of which explain ‘I’ve put a little jar of fat on the table and this is the 37th verse’.
At the end of the final evening, the weary kids are greeted by bands, balloons and bunches of flowers. And they win a medal, inscribed with the number of years they’ve successfully completed the walk.
In the grown-up version, the Four Day Marches, the participants walk all day long. The tradition dates back to 1909.
Family (Dutch) names
Bottenheft (Blunt handle), Geelhoed (Yellow hat), Mooibroek (Smart pants): Believe it or not, these are all names of colleagues who work for RNW. The Dutch are known for their funny Dutch family names and there is a lovely myth explaining where they come from.
The story goes that when Napoleon occupied the Netherlands in 1810, everybody was forced to take on a family name for taxation purposes. The Dutch thought it was only going to be a temporary measure, so they made up comical or offensive sounding names, such as Naaktgeboren (Born naked) and Poepjes (Little pooh), as a practical joke on their French occupiers.
I was taught this at a Dutch school and I’ve only just found out the story is actually not true. Apparently most Dutch people already had family names at the beginning of the 19th century – including the allegedly rebellious names Naaktgeboren and Poepjes.
FEBO is an institution in the world of Dutch snack bars. Not surprisingly, FEBO sells typical fast food such as hamburgers and french fries. But it’s known for its wall of vending machines, used to sell all sorts of typical Dutch hot snacks such as kroketten (croquettes) and frikandel (a kind of deep-fried sausage).
The FEBO phenomenon began in 1941 as a bakery in Amsterdam. Over time, ‘Maison Febo’ became FEBO and the company now counts 65 outlets across the Netherlands.
In the not-so-distant past, an individual hanging a Dutch flag outside their house would have been considered a bit of an ‘overzealous nationalist’. But flag-flying is becoming less of a taboo and, mid June, many Dutch will hang a flag along with a backpack – a sign that somebody in the household has passed their final (secondary school) exams.
Of course, these are not official flag-flying situations.
On official government buildings, flag-flying follows certain rules, including the standard decrees that it must not touch the ground and must not be raised after dark unless appropriately lit. Officially, an orange pennant may be hung along with the flag on Queen’s/King’s Day and on the birthdays of members of the royal family. However, while a flag was flown for the Queen’s birthday and that of her first son (then) Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, it did not have to be flown for his brothers’ birthdays. Similarly, now King Willem-Alexander’s first-born Amalia gets a flag raised on her birthday, but her sisters Alexia and Ariane do not.
By-the-way, the current red, white, and blue flag colours were officially declared by Queen Wilhelmina on 19 Feburary 1937; previously some people supported an orange, white and blue version.
Fried potatoes (AKA chips AKA french fries)
One of the most popular snacks in the Netherlands is chips (or, as they’re known in North America, french fries). But, instead of eating them with salt and vinegar like the Brits, or ketchup like the Americans, the Dutch often shock people by dipping their fries in mayonnaise (see the famous Royale with Cheese scene in the movie Pulp Fiction). But that’s only one of the many, many sauce options here in Holland. Here are a few of the more popular ways to eat fries:
- Friet met (‘chips with’) – this is how the Dutch order chips with mayonnaise. These days, the ‘mayonnaise’ is actually usually fritessaus ‘chip sauce’ – similar to mayo but it’s a bit cheaper, it keeps its form better on the hot chips, and it’s a little lower in fat. Real mayonnaise must be ordered specifically.
- Friet speciaal/Patat speciaal (special chips) – fries with mayonnaise, chopped onion, and either ketchup or curry ketchup.
- Friet met satésaus (chips with peanut or saté sauce) – this is also known as friet saté (saté chips) or patatje pinda (peanut fries).
- Patatje oorlog (war fries) – this term varies from region to region but usually includes peanut sauce, mayonnaise, and chopped onions. Sometimes it also includes curry sauce. The name comes from the fact that it looks like a bloody battle field. In politically correct circles, this is sometimes also known as patatje feest (party fries).
- Patatje vrede (peace fries) – this was originally fries with garlic sauce and chili sauce but has also come to be a politically correct term for patatje oorlog.
- Patat chillimayo – fries with vlammensaus (flame sauce), a combination of mayonnaise and chili sauce.
- Patat samurai – a spicy version of chillimayo; instead of chili sauce this is made with mayonnaise and sambal.
Other saucy possibilities include: tartar sauce, andalouse sauce (a sort of spiced tomato-mayo), piccalilly sauce, cocktail sauce, joppiesaus (a sort of curry-mayo), ketchup (curry or tomato), and stoofvleessaus (stewed meat sauce, especially popular in Belgium).
For many people, the idea of reusing a grave would be like asking their ancestors to haunt them to their dying day. But the Dutch do it all the time.
Because the Netherlands is relatively small and very densely populated, not to mention the fact that much of it lies below sea level, grave space is in short supply. So burial plots are not purchased but leased, and can be dug one-, two- or even three-deep. Between ‘tenants’, the Dutch schudden the graves (literally ‘shake’ the graves, meaning to dig them up and empty them out) for reuse.
But don’t worry, the dead are given a little peace before they’re chucked out of their not-so-final resting place; there’s a 10-year minimum grafrusttermijn ‘grave resting period’. Though plots in some parts of the country are still given in perpetuity, most have set periods of 10, 15 or 20 years.
During that time, the family – or, more likely, the burial insurance of the deceased – must pay an annual fee. Naturally, grandma or grandpa’s dearly beloved descendents can renew the lease, providing they’re not dead broke.
Children around the world would be jealous to know that the Dutch – children and adults alike – regularly eat chocolate sprinkles, called hagelslag for breakfast (or lunch or snack). Literally hagelslag means ‘hailstorm’, presumably because that’s what hail would look like if water were replaced by chocolate.
Originally made of chocolate, the tiny bits were invented in 1936 by the Dutch chocolate company Venz and are traditionally served on buttered bread or toast (to help them stick). Nowadays it’s also possible to get vruchtenhagel (fruit-flavoured candy sprinkles) and chocoladevlokken (chocolate flakes).
By the way, in order to be called ‘chocolate’, hagelslag must contain at least 35 percent cacao. Otherwise it’s called cacaofantasie or ‘cacao fantasy’.
If you don’t live in the Netherlands, the best place to look for hagelslag is, surprisingly, in Asian supermarkets – because of the Dutch influence in Indonesia.
Every Dutchman, rich or poor, has bought something at a HEMA store.
Big department stores are nothing unique. Nor are discount stores. But some are different. The Netherlands has its own version, and it developed into more than a commercial success, ending up in the country’s DNA. It’s an institution in its own right: the HEMA. From humble beginnings as the Dutch Standard Prices Co (Hollandsche Eenheidsprijzen Maatschappij Amsterdam, which abbreviates as HEMA), it developed into a store where every Dutch person has bought stuff. There’s an outlet in most towns.
It’s cheap. Ask any Dutch person for the HEMA commercial jingle, and they’ll burst out singing, “Do more, do more, do more, with fewer coins at the HEMA.” But the Dutch are not easily fobbed off, and apparently they get value for money at the store. The shops have shed their cheap ‘smoked sausage and washing powder’ image – or should I say smell – and have taken on the mission to make Dutch design affordable. Their trick is buying an expensive design and making it low-priced by selling lots of copies.
Best-known among these projects is Le Lapin (the Rabbit), a water kettle with an unlosable steam whistle on a hinged flap resembling a rabbit’s ear. Designed by Nicolaï Carels it found its way into many a Dutch household which it would never have reached, hadn’t the HEMA snapped it up.
The department store has branches in many Dutch cities, and it’s even a sort of benchmark. Are you thinking of moving to Dronten? One of things you ask is, has it got a HEMA?
The chain is aware of its impact on Dutch society. When a group of artists set up a fake Arabic HEMA called El-Hema in 2007, the company, after some hesitation, endorsed the initiative. In doing so, it underscored its appeal to the population as a whole, regardless of background, class or income.
Being Radio Netherlands Worldwide, we have to be unbiased, and I gladly oblige by mentioning a few other general department stores such as: V&D – good but somewhat less distinct in its tastes – and de Bijenkorf – classy, but with just a few branches in the big cities. Other popular chain stores like Gamma or C&A focus on single sectors like clothing or DIY.
The microscope, the telescope, pendulum clock and the mercury thermometer are all 16th- or 17th-century Dutch inventions. This inventive tradition continues right into the 21st century. But are all Dutch inventions that great? It’s hard to imagine their traffic enforcement camera enhancing anyone’s life.
Jip and Janneke
The stories have been translated into many languages – including English, where the children go by the names Mick and Mandy. Or Bob and Jilly. Or, more recently, just plain Jip and Janneke (though surely mispronounced).
In fact, it seems that the names are different in every country they visit:
- Polish – Julek i Julka
- German – Heiner und Hanni and Julia und Alexander
- Spanish – Mila y Yaco
- Russian – Sasja i Masja -Саша и Маша
- Hebrew – Yip we-Yaneqe
- Indonesian – Tono dan Tini
- Estonian – Jip ja Janneke
- Latin – Jippus et Jannica.
Even the Dutch dialect Twents has it’s own slightly different version: Jipke en Jannöaken.
Annie Schmidt committed assisted suicide on 21 May 1995 (the day after she turned 84); more about Annie Schmidt here.
The Dutch kermis is a travelling carnival with rides, games and food. But if it’s kermis in de hel (a carnival in hell) or duiveltjeskermis (devil’s carnival), it means it’s raining and sunny at the same time.
Here are a few more expressions that have spun off this much-loved summer tradition:
- Van een koude kermis thuiskomen: to come home from a cold carnival (literal); to be disappointed (figurative).
- Als je de stilte uit Kerstmis weghaalt, houd je een kermis over: if you take the quiet out of Christmas, there’s a carnival left over (literal and figurative).
- Het is daar kermis: it’s a carnival over there (literal); there’s a lot of fighting over there (figurative).
- Het is niet overal kermis waar het vaantje uitsteekt: it’s not carnival just because the pennant is flying (literal); everything is not always as it seems (figurative).
- Zij verstaan als twee dieven op de kermis: they were like two thieves at the carnival (literal); they really didn’t get along with each other (figurative).
- Een bonte kermis: a colourful carnival (literal); a crazy, fun, hilarious situation/event (figurative).
There are also a few carnival expressions specific to Limburg, which has its own dialect:
- Aachterum is kermes: the carnival is at the back (literal); come to the back door, the front door is locked (figurative).
- Zien keuntje haj kermes!: his buttock got a carnival (literal); he got a good spanking (figurative).
- Al ston d’r kräöm, ‘t is nie aldaag kermes: even if you’re hunched over, it’s not always carnival (literal); moderation in everything, even in times of plenty (figurative).
- Kermeskaost: carnival food (literal); good food (figurative). Traditional carnival fare often included potatoes with green and white beans (called witte keuntjes ien ‘t gras or ‘little white bums in the grass’) along with a good portion of baked ham. For dessert: Rice pudding with black plums.
- Kermesbed carnival bed (literal); a spare bed, used in the past for carnival visitors (figurative).
Komkommertijd (cucumber time)
In English it’s usually known as ‘silly season’, though sometimes, like the Dutch version, it is also referred to as cucumber time: the few summer months when news slows down and is filled out with silly stories. Apparently the term originated with tailors who didn’t have enough work in the slow summer period and went to find work elsewhere – presumably in cucumber fields?!
Here are a few different language versions of ‘cucumber time’:
- Dutch – komkommertijd
- Danish – agurketid
- Norwegian – agurktid
- Czech – Okurková sezóna
- Polish – Sezon ogórkowy
- Hungarian – uborkaszezon
- German – Sauregurkenzeit (‘pickled cucumber season’).