Dutch proverbs and Dutch sayings – The most common Dutch expressions

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I have talked about strange Dutch expressions. But you might not hear these in everyday life. Maybe they are a bit too strange for the Dutch too!

Here, in this blog, I focus on the MOST COMMON Dutch expressions. Because the Dutch tend to use quite a lot of expressions in their speech. And this can lead to a lot of confusion. Because, of course, if you try to interpret these words and sentences literally, they don’t make any sense.

For example, you have a conversation and suddenly the Dutch person starts talking about Joost. And he might know it? What has Joost got to do with this?

  1. Joost mag het weten

Literal translation: Joost (Dutch name) may know it

Who is this Joost? Well that really doesn’t matter. It’s about the fact that no one knows.

For example:                          

  • Ik ben mijn sleutels kwijt? Waar zijn ze?
  • Geen idee. Joost mag het weten.

English equivalent: God only knows.

  1. Daar is het gat van de deur

Literal translation: There’s the hole of the door

This is used in a situation where there’s a fight or a heated argument. If you want someone to leave you can express this by using this proverb.

  • Als je geen zin hebt, daar is het gat van de deur!

English equivalent: You know where the door is.

  1. Van uitstel komt afstel

Literal translation: From delay comes cancellation

This one is pretty obvious, maybe that’s why it’s used so much. If you need to do something, but you actually don’t really want to do it. You know that if you don’t do it now, you will probably never do it.

  • Laten we het nu doen. Want van uitstel komt afstel

English equivalent: He who hesitates is lost.

  1. Hij gooit er met zijn pet naar

Literal translation: He throws his hat to it

To what is someone throwing his hat? Well to the job, I guess.

This proverb means that someone is not doing his job well. He’s not putting in the effort that he should for this job.

English equivalent: To make a half-hearted attempt.

  1. Boter op je hoofd hebben

Literal translation: To have butter on your head

Never a good idea, to walk around with butter on your head. But when can you say this?

If you want to express that someone is guilty of something that he is accusing someone else of.

  • A: je doet het niet goed
  • B: je hebt het zelf ook niet goed gedaan. Je hebt boter op je hoofd.

English equivalent: Take a look in the mirror.

  1. Ik zie beren op de weg

Literal translation: I’m seeing bears on the road

Not really a common thing to see, bears on the road in the Netherlands (just so you know, there are no bears here) but this proverb is pretty common.

This means that you see possible problems or difficulties in a certain project.

  • Ik wil wel graag werken aan dit project, maar ik weet niet of het gaat lukken. Ik zie veel beren op de weg.

English equivalent: ? I see bumps in the road ahead. 

  1. Je bent toch niet van suiker?

Literal translation: You’re not made of sugar?  

A typical Dutch thing to say, because this has everything to do with the strange Dutch weather and another Dutch thing: bikes. You might know that it can rain any time of the day. And most Dutch get used to this.

So when it rains and you have to leave the house, but you don’t want to cycle, someone else can say to you that ‘You’re not made of sugar, right?’.

English equivalent: You’re not going to melt.

  1. De liefde van de man gaat door de maag

Literal translation: Men’s love goes through the stomach

The Dutch love food.

Well, that’s what I think. In this video you see other people’s opinions about this. This proverb says that if you want to seduce a man, you should feed them well. Great food makes a good person. The Dutch are pretty simple.

English equivalent: The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

  1. Dweilen met de kraan open

Literal translation: Mopping with the faucet open

There’s no end to doing something. It keeps on coming and coming and what you’re doing is not really helping.

English equivalent: Trying to empty the sea with a thimble. 

  1. Als er een schaap over de dam is, volgen er meer

Literal translation: When there’s one sheep over the dam, more will follow.

This means, when someone does something, others will follow their behaviour.

For example, when there’s a group of youngster waiting to jump in to cold water. When one goes, the rest will join him.

English equivalent: Follow like sheep. 

  1. Niet geschoten is altijd mis

Literal translation: If you don’t shoot, you always miss

This one is not so old. This expression was first said by one of the most famous Dutch people of all time: footballer Johan Cruijff.

This means, you have to take chances to achieve something. If you don’t do anything, nothing will happen.

For Canadians this might sound familiar. A Canadian hockey player once said:

  • You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

English equivalent: Nothing comes from doing nothing.

  1. Wat de boer niet kent dat vreet hij niet

Literal translation: What the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat

Dutch cuisine isn’t known for being the most excellent and tasteful around. In this video you see what foreigners think about it.

This expression means that if you don’t know something, you don’t eat it. People sometimes use this in a broader way. Say you want to refer to the fact that someone is afraid to do something he doesn’t know.

  1. Een goed begin is het halve werk

Literal translation: A good start is half the work

This one speaks for itself. If you start in a good way, you made a big step. This one is really commonly used in the Netherlands.  

English equivalent: To begin is half the work.

  1. Beter laat dan nooit

Literal translation: Better late than never

Another one you might hear a lot when you are in the Netherlands. Often used as an excuse, for example when you are late for a meeting or you are late in finishing a project.

  • Het spijt me dat ik te laat ben met mijn rapport. Maar beter laat dan nooit!
  1. Waar rook is, is vuur

Literal translation: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

Rumours about something are based on something. So this is used in a negative context. There should be some kind of truth in the allegations someone makes.

For example talking about bad cliches and stereotypes about the Netherlands and the Dutch.

  • Ik hoor dat de Nederlanders gierig zijn. Ik weet het niet zeker, maar waar rook is, is vuur.

English equivalent: There’s no smoke without fire.

  1. Maak je borst maar nat

Literal translation: Make your chest wet

Yes, make your chest wet. This means that you should be prepared for a big task or exercise. In English you would say: get ready!

Bart de Pau
online Dutch teacher & founder of the Dutch Summer School & Dutch Winter School