So, I’m in the Netherlands, and I’m trying to learn Dutch. It’s not an easy language, but it does have those little threads of enchantment that keep you hanging on. One is the idioms. Dutch is rife with them. I often have to stop a conversation to say, “Okay, I was following you until the monkey came into it.” But then that’s because here when one says, “Kwam de aap toch uit de mouw,” (the monkey came out of the sleeve), they’re not talking about an actual monkey. They’re saying, “Ah, the truth has come out.”
Some of their idioms are similar to ours, and I can deduce their meaning easily. Het paard achter de wagen spannen. The horse stands behind the cart. While our sayings tend to be phrased as cautionary advice (we wag a finger and say, “Don’t put the cart before the horse”), the Dutch tend to simply observe that the horse is in the wrong place. And while we may know our own idioms, we rarely use them in daily speech. They’re things our grandmothers might say. Not so in Dutch, where idioms are an active part of the modern language.
Here are some of my other favorites:
Hij is met zijn neus in the boter gevallen. He fell with his nose in the butter. Meaning, he fell into the right place; he was lucky.
Zij zetten the bloemetjes biuten. They set the flowers out. Meaning, they’re partying.
Daar kun je naar fluiten! You can whistle after it. Meaning, it’s gone (often used about money).
Het staat als een paal boven water. It stands like a pole out of water. Meaning, it's obvious.
Daar lust ik wel pap van. I’d like to make porridge out of that. Meaning, I suppose, that something is so good you just want to mash it up and eat it.
I asked my husband, “So can you say that about anything you really like?”
“Yeah,” he said, “you could say that about pizza if it was really good.”
“Yuck, pizza porridge.”
"It's an expression," says my husband. "Nobody thinks about what it literally means."
Except us foreigners, that is, who keep wondering how these Dutch can eat such disgusting porridge and why so many people are pleased to have butter on their noses.