Dutch expressions - where do they come from?

Dutch expressions - where do they come from?


Our language is bursting with expressions. When we make Dutch translations, we use them regularly, because we don't want to throw in the towel. A good translation does not read like a translation, but like an original text. Expressions can help with that. Typical Dutch expressions give your text a local touch, and that often makes reading more fun. You may not need an explanation for these proverbs and sayings, but do you know where they come from?

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Who knows?

Joost is a common name in the Netherlands and the expression is sometimes attributed to one of the Joosts from history. But in the original expression, Joost is not a personal name but another word for the devil. There are several theories about how we came to call the devil Joost. For example, it could be a corruption of the Javanese word "dejos," in shortened form "joos," for a Chinese god. The Dutch in Java saw these Chinese gods as pagan idols, and so 'joos(t)' became synonymous with the devil.

Names in Dutch expressions

We have many other typically Dutch expressions with personal names in them, often to indicate certain characteristics. Sometimes rhyme or alliteration played a major role in the origin of the expression (koos werkeloos (Loydd unemployed), crea bea (arty farty), pietje precies (stickler for the rules). Other expressions have a clearer origin. For example, we owe "curious aagje" to the protagonist of the seventeenth-century farcical Avontuurtje van 't Nieuwsgierigh Aeghje van Enckhuysen (curious Aeghje of the city of Enkhuizen). And if you call someone a good hendrik, you probably think that person is boring and not much fun. But the original Hendrik from a 19th century textbook was praised with the word "good" precisely because he was so obedient and kind, and would never hurt anyone. Later our way of thinking changed (children are allowed to be naughty sometimes) and "good" took on a different meaning.

Language tip: We write the proper names in these expressions with a lowercase letter because they are commonly used and no longer refer to a specific person.

Dutch expressions with an international twist

Do you sometimes get 'Spanish stuffy' too (blush up like nobody's business)? Or have you ever accused someone of being 'East Indian deaf' (turn a deaf ear) or doing a job with the 'French stroke' (in a sloppy way)? As you can see, we also like to refer to other languages and regions in our typically Dutch expressions. Do we think that all French people do half a job? In this case, the expression refers to a term from horseback riding. French whipping is a loose, dashing stroke with a long whip that was used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Originally, nothing negative was meant by this: rather, this stroke required a good command of the whip. The negative meaning of "loose, not thorough" came later, possibly under the influence of the French occupation.

Did you know that we ourselves are not so well off in foreign expressions? The English language has several expressions in which "Dutch" has a negative meaning.

  • Going Dutch or Dutch treat → splitting the bill
  • Double Dutch → an unclear story, gibberish
  • Dutch courage → courage that comes from drinking alcohol
  • Dutch gold → imitation gold
  • Dutch rise → a salary increase that does you no good at all

Recognizable or sheer nonsense?

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