Home Education Language Learning Dutch proverbs: How the Dutch express themselves
Last update on November 14, 2019
Written by Dutched Pinay

The Dutch express themselves in sometimes baffling, but commonly used, ways. Expat blogger Dutched Pinay comes to grips with a selection of Dutch proverbs.

The more I fine tune myself into the niceties of the Dutch language, the more I became aware of how commonly the Dutch express themselves using Dutch proverbs. These axioms and figures of speeches are ordinary ways of expressing a point in normal daily life conversations. How many of the Dutch proverbs below do you recognise?

How the Dutch express themselves

Here is a collection of some of the more interesting Dutch proverbs I have encountered in the years I have lived in the Netherlands.

Dutch proverb #1: The cat watching from the tree

At the Dutch language school I went to, our sympathetic teacher was sensibly explaining to us the meaning of the saying ‘De kat uit de boom kijken’.

Literal translation: the cat watching from the tree.
Translation: a cautious person, someone who prefers to observe people first before initiating a conversation.

Our teacher then asked us, one by one, if we fit this type of personality. My response? It depends on my mood.

Dutch proverb #2: Butter with the fish

During a visit with the in-laws, my Dutchman had to settle some money-related matters with his Dutch father. I overheard my Dutch father-in-law saying to him, “Boter bij de vis.” He later explained to me what it meant.

Literal translation: butter with the fish.
Translation: paying right away in cash.

Money affairs are of course typically Dutch.

Dutch proverb #3: Were you struck by a windmill today?

I was goofing around one afternoon with a colleague. Let’s just say that he didn’t expect me to bite and pull his leg in return. He complained, “Heb je vandaag een klap van de molen gekregen?

Huh, what do you mean?

Literal translation: were you struck by a windmill today?
Translation: a person is not being himself or herself today.

Dutch proverb #4: For an apple and an egg

During a nice weekend afternoon family tea, while telling my Dutch mother-in-law how cheaply I bought my flattering denim skirt I was wearing, she said, “Ja, voor een appel en een ei, heh.

Literal translation: for an apple and an egg.
Translation: it’s cheap, it doesn’t cost much.

Knowing a few Dutch proverbs can go a long way in understanding how the Dutch express themselves.

Ah well, the Dutch are a thrifty and principled lot when it comes to stretching the value of their hard-earned money. If they can have an item or service for free, they jump on it quickly, without hesitation!

Dutch proverb #5: Laughing like a farmer with a toothache

A friend of ours called to report some not-so-interesting new developments at his work, “Ik lach als een boer die kiespijn heeft.”

Literal translation: laughing like a farmer with a toothache.
Translation: being forced to accept (or laugh at) an unwanted circumstance.

My sympathies…

Dutch proverb #6: Mix water and wine

Soms moet je water bij de wijn doe,” my ex-boss used to say to me during our meetings every two weeks.

Literal translation: mix water and wine
Translation: make a compromise

He was one of the few resolute auxiliaries who insisted I become fluent in the Dutch language; all efforts must begin at home, thus, no more speaking English with my Dutchman. Punt (full stop).

Dutch proverb #7: Who wants beauty must endure the pain

The father-in-law has finer tastes in fashion; he’s got a good feeling for it. So when I am around he always checks out what I am wearing. When he sees me wearing my high-heels, he grins and says, “Wie mooi wil zijn, moet pijn lijden.”

Literal translation: who wants to be beautiful must go through pain.
Translation: beauty has its costs.

Well, very true indeed. It’s not always easy wearing high-heels in cobble stone Europe!

Dutch proverb #8: God made Earth, the Dutch made Holland

And here is my favorite saying of the country, “God schiep de aarde, de Hollanders schiepen Holland.”

Literal translation: God made the earth, the Dutch made Holland.
Translation: the Dutch are known for its pioneering technology in water defense and land reclamation.

Here’s an apt story about this.

When I was a kid, I read about the legend of the brave little Dutch boy called Hans Brinker. He allegedly saved his whole town from devastating flood waters by inserting his finger into a small hole in a dike, to stop the waters gushing through.

Since it’s a typical Dutch story, I assumed my in-laws knew Hans Brinker. Upon giving my enthusiastic review of the tale, I was met with blank stares instead of hearing the familiar nods and ‘oh yes’ from them. On a positive note, they welcomed the story with great interest.

I realised later that the brave little Dutch boy was just a figment of a creative imagination by a non-Dutch fiction writer. The story actually never existed in the Netherlands.