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Our favourite Flemish expressions

When my boss sent an email to say that a couple of people were sat in our weekly meeting ‘for bacon and beans’, I started to think he might really need a holiday. Turns out that it made perfect sense to him, and the other native Dutch speakers in the office. Failing to find a book or website anywhere that gave us a short list of the most important ones, I set out to make my own. Here is our pick of the most common – and amusing – Dutch expressions, complete with literal English translations and explanations in English to make them that little bit more accessible for us language lovers. Veel plezier!

Iets tussen de soep en de patatten doen

To do something between the soup and the potatoes

When someone is doing something between other tasks; something that’s important and should be given more time

Er voor spek en bonen bij zitten

To sit there for bacon and beans

When someone is present at an event (like a work meeting), but isn’t allowed to contribute to it or doesn’t add any value.

De kerk in het midden houden

To keep the church in the middle

To not cause an argument / keep the peace

Van een mug/muis een olifant maken

To make an elephant from a mosquito/mouse

To make a bigger deal out of something than necessary (= “to make a mountain out of a molehill”)

Als een hond naar een zieke koe kijken

To look like a dog staring at a sick cow

To have a facial expression where you look shocked and confused at the same time

Het regent pijpestelen

It’s raining pipe handles

It’s raining really heavily (= “it’s raining cats and dogs”)

Vechten tegen de bierkaai

To fight against the beer quay

To do something that is pointless because it won’t work or achieve what you want (= “to fight a losing battle”)

De beste stuurlui staan aan wal

The best steering people stand by the quay

When someone is doing something and other people criticise it, thinking that they know better

Zijn schaapjes op het droge hebben

To keep your sheep on dry ground

To have everything sorted out from a financial perspective, i.e. plenty of money to live off.

Met de deur in huis vallen

To fall into the house with the door

To get straight to the point / be direct with what you want to say (= “to cut to the chase”)

Met uw gat in de boter vallen

To fall with your backside into the butter

To get lucky, probably when you don’t expect or deserve it (= “to land butter side up” or “to come up smelling of roses”)

De morgenstond heeft goud in de mond

The morning moment has gold in the mouth

If you start something early, you are likely to get more done/achieve more (= “the early bird catches the worm”)

Zijn paraplu opentrekken

To open his umbrella

When someone avoids responsibility, and lets everyone else take the blame

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw

Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve

Now it becomes clear what the real meaning/intention was

Mijn tenen uitkuisen

To clean out my toes

To try your hardest/give it your all.

De kat uit de boom kijken

To look the cat out of the tree

To wait and see how things will develop before you get involved (= ”to see which way the wind blows”)

Van een kale reis thuiskomen

To come home from a bald journey

When you don’t succeed in what you had planned to achieve or get

Geen oude koeien uit de gracht halen

To not pull old cows out of the ditch

When you should leave alone a shameful or awkward event that happened in the past.

What are your favourite Dutch or Flemish expressions? And do you have any amusing lost-in-translation anecdotes? Let us know in the comments section below.

Heather
Heather is a language and travel geek at heart, having gotten the bug for it while studying German and Italian in her home country, England. After managing hotel content for a start-up in Berlin, being an Erasmus student in Bologna and writing for Frommer's travel guides while in London, she moved to Gent in 2015 for a year. Still here, Gent must have been doing something right! She's now determined to help other newbie expats settle in and build a great life here in this beautiful city. If you'd like to get in touch, send an email to heather@thesquare.gent

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