Learning Dutch: Favourite Dutch translations

Things You Didn't Know: Favourite Dutch translations

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Ever tried 'eekhoorntjesbrood', little squirrels' bread? Diana Goodwin discusses some of her favourite and funny translations of Dutch words and their origins.

It's been way too long since I wrote about my adventures with the Dutch language. I've now gotten to a point in my language acquisition process where I understand most of what people are saying (in everyday conversation), even though the ability to express myself in Dutch continues to lag behind. This strange tongue, which sounded so alien to me three years ago, is actually starting to make sense!

Still, there are some Dutch words that are just too funny. The word for 'sample' never fails to amuse; just the other day we were watching a detective show in English, and the Dutch subtitles said, "Neem het monster naar het labo." I giggled and said, "Take the monster to the lab!" Hee hee. Get it? Take the monster to the lab!

Another favourite is ijsberen. Literally, this verb means 'to ice-bear'. An ijsbeer is a polar bear, and if you've ever seen a polar bear in captivity, you know that they tend to pace back and forth. So ijsberen is pacing, which is very evocative if a bit sad.

I was confused the first time I heard someone talking about an 'acorn' in Dutch. The word for squirrel is eekhoorn, which is pronounced exactly like 'acorn' in English. Thus, the Dutch word for the animal sounds like the English word for the animal's favourite food. I wonder how that happened, from an etymological point of view...

Things you didn't know about Belgium: The squirrel and the acorn

It gets better: The word for porcini mushrooms is eekhoorntjesbrood. Literally translated, this means 'little squirrels' bread'. How cute is that? It sounds like something straight out of Beatrix Potter. I suggest we English speakers stop using the Italian name at once and start calling this delicious fungus 'squirrel bread'.

I'm often struck by similarities between Dutch and English words, especially when the meanings are related but different. Take, for instance, the word stof in Dutch. It can mean either 'dust' or 'fabric' or even 'matter' in the sense of 'substance' or 'material'. I have no doubt that this is where our word 'stuff', with all its many uses and connotations, comes from.

Even more interesting is the Dutch word for hydrogen: waterstof. The stuff of water. Oxygen is zuurstof, or literally 'acid stuff', which makes sense when you learn that scientists originally thought that oxygen was a necessary component of acids. Carbon is koolstof, literally 'coal stuff'. Sometimes I find Dutch to be wonderfully descriptive.

Dutch is also much simpler than English. The same word, zuur,  means both 'sour' and 'acid'. Logical, right? In English, we have two words that mean nearly the same thing: sour and tart. I've come to realise that in cases such as this, one word is often related to Dutch/German, while the other comes from Latin/Romance languages. 'Sour' is related to zuur while 'tart' comes from Old French.

For someone like me who loves language and words, this stuff is fascinating. (See what I did there?) Stay tuned for more geeky word fun!  


Reprinted with permission of Things You Didn't Know About Belgium.

Things you didn't know about Belgium: Diana GoodwinDiana Goodwin is an UK-born, half-Asian, American expat who came to Belgium after working in the Hollywood movie industry for far too long. She now lives in Hasselt with her Flemish husband, a yellow Lab and a black cat. As a medievalist and art historian by training, she finds Belgium is the perfect place to indulge her fascination with medieval history, art and architecture. Diana writes writes cultural observations about her new home on Things You Didn't Know About Belgium, and gives tours in Flanders to English-speaking travellers. You can reach her via email or find her on Twitter.


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3 Comments To This Article

  • Hans posted:

    on 5th February 2016, 12:19:39 - Reply

    How about the translation for the garden-hose, "slang" which is the same as snake "slang"
  • Allan Apel posted:

    on 28th May 2014, 16:42:22 - Reply

    Your outside-in observations made me chuckle. I came to the Eindhoven area from London 10 years ago. Shortly after we arrived I was exposed to "mierenneuker" and have applied it in many appropriate situations since. Readers can do their own linguistic homework on this one :-)
  • Joe posted:

    on 28th May 2014, 14:33:57 - Reply

    Very nice article, and the list could go on forever about 'funny words' Like kikker (frog), spin (spider(, etc. I too lag behind in expressing myself, but knowing the language is a valuable asset. More to learn for sure.