Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Cats, Windmills, Marionettes and More in Dutch Idioms

Scared cat in a treeDutch is spoken by 23 million people as a mother tongue. It's the only official language in the Netherlands, and one of three official languages in the neighboring province of Flanders, Belgium.
It also holds official status in Suriname (South America) and in the Caribbean countries of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten.
Dutch is closely related to both English and German, and it's often said that in respect to grammar and vocabulary, Dutch comes between the two. (You'll find examples from the idioms below at the end of the post)
And even if you don't speak Dutch, you're sure to be amused by these 10 typical expressions. What got me going on this blog post was the idiom "de kat uit de boom kijken". My Dutch mom loved to use it and I, of course, knew what it meant. But I never really understood the literal meaning. In English, the literal translation is "to look the cat out of the tree". Huh?
So when my husband asked me to explain what that means, I couldn't. But his question did get me to find out what's behind the saying. Here it is.
And I've added a few other fun idioms that I grew up with.

1. De kat uit de boom kijken.

Idiom: To see which way the wind blows
Literally: Watching the cat [until it comes] out of the tree  (Photo by Lalita Tretiakova on Unsplash)
Explanation: To wait, not react immediately, but to first look carefully to see what's happening.
Origin: Onzetaal (see link at the bottom) suggests that the saying may go back to the way a dog will chase a cat up a tree, but then wait until the cat comes down again because dogs don't climb on trees. Apparently, the expression appeared already in the 18th century in a collection of proverbs.
Dutch Explanation: Afwachten, niet meteen reageren, maar eerst goed kijken wat er er aan de hand is.
German Idiom: Erst einmal sehen, wie der Hase läuft. (First of all see how the rabbit runs.)

2. Maak dat de kat wijs.

Idiom: Tell me another.
Literally: Make the cat believe that.
Explanation: Essentially, this idiom means: I don't believe you. Tell this nonsense to someone else.
The Dutch phrase "iemand iets wijsmaken" means "to make someone believe something (that may not be true)".
Dutch Explanation: Ik geloof je niet. Vertel die onzin maar ergens anders.

3. Een kat in de zak kopen.

Idiom: To buy a pig in a poke
Literally: Buying a cat in the bag
Explanation: Buying something without having looked at it before.
Origin: In earlier times, merchants at a market would often put a worthless cat into the bag instead of the pig or hare a person paid for. This worked especially well with inattentive customers.
Dutch Explanation: Iets kopen zonder het gezien te hebben.
German Idiom: Die Katze im Sack kaufen. (To buy the cat in a the sack.)

4. De molen is door de vang. Dutch windmill at rest

Idiom: It all went south.
Literally: The (wind) mill has [broken through] the catch. (This picture of a Dutch windmill was taken during our 2016 Canal boating trip in the Netherlands.)
Explanation: Everything is going wrong. The matter is lost.
Origin: The Dutch term "de vang" on a windmill is "the catch" or "the drum brake", which prevents the wheel from moving on its own, even in a storm. When the brake no longer holds, you lose control over the turning of the mill and that can cause problems or even accidents.
Dutch Explanation: Alles gaat helemaal mis, alles loopt fout. De zaak is verloren.

5. Dat is koren op zijn molen.

Idiom: That plays directly into his hands.
Literally: That is grain on his mill.
Explanation: That's useful to him. He'll use that as an argument for what he wants anyway.
Origin: Although windmills in the Netherlands were mostly used to pump water from lower lying areas, they were also used to crush grain.
Dutch Explanation: Dat komt hem goed van pas. Hij zal dat meteen gebruiken als argument voor wat hij toch al wilde
German: Das is Wasser auf seine Mühle. (In Germany there were many more watermills than windmills!)

Cattle eating grass on Dutch pasture near canal6. Over koetjes en kalfjes praten.

Idiom: To make small talk
Literally: Talking about little cows and little calves (Photo by Alwin Kroon on Unsplash)
Explanation: To talk about unimportant things.
Origin: This expression very likely originated in the Dutch countryside where farmers talk about their cattle with each other. But the idiom turns the meaning around: what may be important for farmers, turns out to be unimportant to everyone else.
Dutch Explanation: Over onbeduidende zaken spreken.

7. Een wit voetje willen halen.

Idiom: To curry favor
Literally: Wanting to get a little white foot.
Explanation: Seeking to advance oneself, often through flattery or fawning.
Origin: This curious expression goes back to an earlier time, when you had to pay toll while passing from one region to another. Apparently, if you had a horse with four white feet, you lucked out and did not have to pay. Later, when it became a more general idiom, one little white foot was enough.
Dutch Explanation: Bij iemand in de gunst willen komen, vaak door slijmen.

8. Van de prins geen kwaad weten.

Idiom: Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
Literally: To know no evil of the prince.
Explanation: a) To be totally innocent. b) To pretend you don't know anything about what's going on.
Origin: This is an old expression, dating back to the 17th century. Very likely, it refers to a prince from the House of Orange. You were either totally innocent and knew nothing. Or, you were aware that it was dangerous to speak badly about a powerful person, so it was better to keep such thoughts to yourself.
Dutch: a) Totaal onschuldig zijn. b) Doen als of je niets weet.

9. Nu komt de aap uit de mouw.

Idiom: The cat is out of the bag.
Literally: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.
Explanation: When it's suddenly clear what's going on.
Origin: This goes back to the magician's art of suddenly popping a monkey out of his sleeve. It suggests that something that was kept hidden suddenly comes out, for example someone's true intentions or character.
Dutch: Als ineens duidelijk wordt hoe iets zit.

10. Nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen.Dancing Marionettes

Idiom: Now the fat is in the fire.
Literally: Now you have the dolls dancing. (Photo by Sagar Dani on Unsplash)
Explanation: The quarrel or fight is starting. There's trouble ahead.
Origin: Puppet shows have been a popular form of entertainment since the Middle Ages. When the dolls start dancing - i.e. the puppet show starts - it's the beginning of conflict, quarrels, etc. Nowadays, the expression used for the moment when problems arise, when something starts going wrong.
Dutch Explanation: De ruzie of twist is begonnen. Problemen zijn onvermeidbaar.

In these our restless times, the last expression seems to come up a lot. I've heard it several times when listening to the Dutch Podcast NCR Vandaag, and most recently in the one talking about the German Wirecard scandal.
It's almost impossible to find the absolute equivalent of an idiom in another language, because expressions are often shaped by a people's culture. For example, the Dutch idiom "nu heb je de poppen aan het dansen" contains an "entertainment" factor (it's a "show"!), which "fat is in the fire" doesn't have.
To find out more about the above idioms or to look for others, go on these sites 33 Dutch Idioms, Onzetaal, A Taste of Dutch.

You may not speak Dutch, but if you speak English or German you'll find that these three Germanic languages share many cognates. In some of these, the meaning changes somewhat. Here are a few  examples from the idioms above:




the cat

de kat

die Katze




the sack

de zak

der Sack

the mill

de molen

die Mühle




the cow

de koe

die Kuh

the foot

de voet

der Fuß




the puppet

de pop

die Puppe




Our recent posts looked at German, French, Italian and Spanish idioms

Dutch isn't one of our four languages that you can practice on GamesforLanguage. However, if you want to learn some basics in Dutch: greetings, polite phrases or travel terms, go to our - also completely free - sister site Lingo-Late, where we have 30+ or so Dutch phrases. You can Listen, Record Yourself, and Playback Your Voice, as many times as you want to learn and practice.

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Bread, Flour, Cats and More in Spanish Idioms

Carrying 3 loafs of breadIn earlier posts we explored some of the lesser known German, French and Italian Idioms.
Spanish is spoken as an official language in 20 countries, and is rich in idioms and expressions. These are fixed phrases that have a figurative rather than a literal meaning. Here are 12 common expressions you may come across.

1. Nacer con un pan bajo el brazo

Idiom: to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth
Literally: to be born with a bread under your arm. (Photo by Mae Mu on Unsplash.)
Explanation: This is said of a person who is very lucky or very privileged.
The expression may also go back to the idea that a new child born to a poor family will mean another pair of hands for bringing in the money.
Spanish: Se dice de una persona que es muy afortunada o muy privilegiada.

2. Ser pan comido

Idiom: to be a piece of cake
Literally: to be bread (to be) eaten
Explanation: You use it for something that's very easy to do.
Bread is a good image for something that is easy to get and doesn't need any elaborate preparation.
Spanish: Se usa para decir que algo es muy fácil de hacer.

3. Ser harina de otro costal Hands with flour

Idiom: to be a different kettle of fish
Literally: to be flour from a different sack (Photo by Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash)
Explanation: To be a separate matter, an entirely different thing.
This expression probably goes back to a time when people brought their own batches of various types of grain to collective mills. These batches were kept in separate sacks to keep them apart.
Spanish: Ser tema aparte.

4. Meterse en harina

Idiom: to get down to it
Literally: to get into the flour
Explanation: To buckle down eagerly to a job or task.
When a baker prepares bread, he is wont to put his hands right into the flour to knead the dough
Spanish: Empeñarse con mucho ahínco en una obra o empresa.

5. Estar en su salsa

Idiom: to be in one's element
Literally: to be in one's sauce
Explanation: To be in a familiar environment and to feel at home, comfortable.
Spanish: Estar en un entorno conocido y sentirse como en casa, comodo.

a cute cat6. Buscarle tres pies al gato.

Idiom: to make a mountain out of a molehill
Literal: to look for three legs on the cat (Photo by Ramiz Dedakovi? on Unsplash)
Explanation: You don't need to complicate things that are simple.
The expression doesn't make a lot of sense like this. It actually used to be: "buscarle cinco pies al gato, y no tiene más que cuatro" (to look for five legs on the cat, when it only has four) and over time it changed to this.
Spanish: No hace falta complicar algo que es sencillo.

7. Dar a algun gato por liebre

Idiom: to take someone for a ride
Literally: give someone a cat for a hare
Explanation: To deceive someone, con fool, trick.
In earlier centuries people were not always sure what meat they were eating. If they ordered rabbit stew, is that really what they got?
Spanish: Engañar a alguno, embaucar.

8. Empezar la casa por el tejado

Idiom: to put the cart before the horse
Literally: to start the house by the roof
Explanation: This expression is used when someone doesn't do something in the right order.
How can you build a house by starting with the roof? It can't be done, and when you try you're sure to run into problems.
Se utiliza cuando alguien no sigue el orden correcto para hacer algo.

9. En un abrir y cerrar de ojosa woman's beautiful eye

Idiom: in the twinkling of an eye
Literally: in an opening and closing of eyes (Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash)
Explanation: Something that happens quickly, in an instant.
The expression is said to go back to a passage in the New Testament, referring to the moment of resurrection that would happen in a flash.
Spanish: Algo que pasa rapidamente, en un instante.

10. Estar hecho como un flan

Idiom: to shake like a leaf
Literally: to be made like creme caramel
Explanation: To be very nervous or shaky.
This refers to people who are anxious, fearful, or unsteady for whatever reason.
A flan is a custard-like dessert that has a light texture and trembles when touched.
Spanish: Estar muy nervioso o tembloroso.

11. Pedir peras al olmo

Idiom: to get blood from a stone
Literally: to ask the elm tree for pears
Explanation: Asking for the impossible.
Looking for pears on an elm tree is a pretty futile exercise.
A pear is a sweet and delicious fruit. On the other hand, the small hairy fruit of an elm tree is not edible for humans.
Spanish: Pedir algo imposible.

12. Camina comenzado, medio andado.

Idiom: A good beginning is half the battle.
Literally: Road started, half walked.
Explanation: The first step is the most important one.
Once you take the first step, you're on your way. If you don't even take a first step, you won't make any progress.
Spanish: El primer paso es el más importante.

These expressions can be a fun topic of conversation no matter which Spanish-speaking country you're in. If your conversation partner appears puzzled by a "modismo" you're using, you may want to ask: ¿No se dice aquí? (Is it not said here?) 
During our one-month stay in Barcelona a few years ago, we had regular language-exchange meetings with a local student. He spoke Spanish, we spoke German, and we met in a neighborhood bar. Talking about equivalent idioms in our respective languages was a natural part of each session.

For the Spanish idioms that I've listed here, I looked at a number of different sites. You can find more about those expressions or look up new ones by clicking on the links of the sites: Significado y Origen de Expresiones Famosas   Diccionario de la lengua española   Happy Hour Spanish