My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Animals

Have you ever wondered what some curious sayings and expressions in your language actually mean? Like in any other language, the Dutch language features plenty of weird sayings, especially when you’d translate them literally into English. (I’ve often made hubby laugh by throwing in a saying in ‘Dunglish’.) Since they have often been used for hundreds of years already, the origins of these bizarre and sometimes exotic sayings have been long forgotten. Because I’m always interested in culture and etymology, I collected 10 of my favourite Dutch sayings, expressions, phrases or words that feature animals, and tried to look up their origins.

1. Now comes the monkey out of the sleeve

Nu komt de aap uit de mouw

Meaning: Now the truth or someone’s real character is being revealed.
Possible origins: In the past, performers would literally hide a monkey up their sleeve and unexpectedly take them out to surprise the audience.

2. My name is hare

Mijn naam is haas

Meaning: I don’t know anything about it. I don’t have anything to do with it. Leave me out of it.
Origins: This true story sounds like it came straight out a Coen brothers movie! When a German student accidentally killed someone in a duel in the 1850s he decided to flee to France. He asked his mate Hase, a law student, for his ID, but lost it after crossing the border. When the document was sent back to the university where Hase was studying, he had to explain in court how his ID ended up in France. Hase then uttered the standard legal phrase ‘Mein Name ist Hase, ich verneine die Generalfragen, ich weiß von nichts’ (‘My name is Hase, I’m denying everything, I don’t know anything about it’). Because ‘Hase’ (or ‘haas’ in Dutch) also means ‘hare’, it sounded quite comical and ‘My name is Hase’ soon became a catchphrase among students. Eventually it even became a common Dutch expression.

3. Little donkey bridge


Meaning: A mnemonic device.
Example: When the Euro was introduced in 2002, the completely non-sensible phrase ‘DING FLOF BIPS’ was used in a national campaign in the Netherlands as a donkey bridge to help remember the 12 Euro countries (by creating an acronym using the first letter of each participating country). As you can imagine, everybody thought this campaign was rather hilarious, but the ridiculous phrase did make us remember the 12 Euro countries!
Trivia: The term donkey bridge dates back to Ancient Greece!

Donkey bridge (Source: Shutterstock)

4. Little monkey tail


Meaning: This is how we call the @ symbol in Dutch. I think the Dutch name sounds much cuter!
Trivia: Well before Twitter, Instagram and email addresses, the @ symbol was used to denote various different things in different languages. In the 16th and 17th century, for example, it was short for ‘in the year of’ in Dutch.

5. 1st of April, frog in your butt

1 april, kikker in je bil

Meaning: This is what we shout to someone after playing an April Fool’s Day prank on them. When I was growing up, just being able to shout this phrase was the highlight of the day!
Origins: Besides the funny image and the fact that the words ‘april’ and ‘bil’ (butt) rhyme, there doesn’t seem to be a clear explanation for this phrase…

6. To make an elephant out of a mosquito

Van een mug een olifant maken 

Meaning: To make something big out of a small problem. To blow something out of proportion. To exaggerate.
Origins: I couldn’t find any information on the origins of this expression, but the juxtaposition of the tiny mosquito and the enormous elephant is quite funny. It’s curious to have such an exotic animal in a Dutch expression, which at least implies the expression wasn’t used till after the Dutch started their explorations and had seen elephants in Africa and Asia.

7. Find the dog in the pot

De hond in de pot vinden

Meaning: Arriving just too late for supper.
Origins: This expression dates back to early 20th century and implies arriving just too late for supper and finding the dog licking out the pots.

Coming home to find a dog in the pot (Source: Shutterstock)

8. To buy a cat in the bag

Een kat in de zak kopen

Meaning: Having made a bad purchase.
Origins: This expression appeared in Dutch early 18th century already and there are lots of variations of it in different languages. They all warn for the same: don’t always trust the salesman and always check what you’re buying. While they might be selling you a hare (to cook), there’s really only a cat in the bag.

9. That hits as pliers on a pig

Dat slaat als een tang op een varken

Meaning: That makes absolutely no sense.
Origins: This saying actually derives from the older saying ‘This fits as pliers around a pig’, literally meaning ‘Pliers don’t fit around a pig’. It was quite common to use the combination ‘fits as x around y’ as an ironic expression. The combinations would be ridiculous and impossible.

10. That’s as true as a cow

Dat is een waarheid als een koe

Meaning: Sometimes the truth is so obvious, you can’t miss it. Just like one wouldn’t be able to miss a cow.
Origins: There isn’t much known about the origins of this expression, but it seems to be very old as it was found in letters dating back to 1877. The expression apparently also exists in Afrikaans, which derives from Dutch but evolved independently from the 18th century.

Do you know some curious sayings in Dutch, English or any other language you’d like to share with me? Please leave a comment!

12 thoughts on “My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Animals

  1. Je hebt een paar hele mooie gekozen! Ik heb hier thuis een spreekwoorden- en gezegden encyclopedie en heel vaak heeft de oorsprong niets meer te maken met de huidige betekenis of moment van gebruik.
    Ik las een flink aantal jaren geleden een boek van Lulu Wang, een Chinese die in Nederland is komen wonen en in het Nederlands schrijft. Wat ik zo leuk vond was dat zij regelmatig twee spreekwoorden of gezegden samenvoegde en zo iets creëerde dat ongelofelijk genoeg toch nog ergens op sloeg ook qua betekenis. Dus niet “als een tang op een varken”!! 😄

    1. Dank je! 🙂 Tijdens mijn eerste jaar Engels op de uni moesten we van een aantal woorden een etymologisch onderzoek doen, zo fascinerend! Je leert zoveel over een cultuur en hoe bepaalde ontwikkelingen invloed hebben gehad op taal.
      Dat boek van Lulu Wang lijkt me erg leuk!

      1. Ik las eerst “Het Lelietheater” van haar en daarna “Brief aan mijn lezers” (als ik de titel goed heb van de tweede, zal het komende week voor je opzoeken!). Het tweede boek gaat over haar komst hier, het leren van de taal en daar gebruikt ze die gemist spreekwoorden en gezegden in. Lelietheater gaat over haar jeugd in China waar haar ouders (en zij) naar een strafkamp gestuurd worden ten tijde van Mao’s heerschappij.

  2. Wat een leuk verhaal! Raar volkje eigenlijk hè die Nederlanders. Hier nog een paar…
    Als een olifant in een porseleinkast…
    Als er 1 schwap over de dam is
    Als t kalf verdronken is
    Een konijn uit de hoge hoed toveren.

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