Following last year’s popular blog post My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Animals, here’s another look at some curious Dutch sayings. This time I chose My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Food! I got the idea for today’s post when I remembered the Dutch expression komkommertijd (cucumber time) the other day. This is typically used during summer time, when there’s a lack of interesting things to watch on TV and even less big topics to discuss on the news.
While the following sayings might not make any sense when you hear them, all of them are actually still actively used in the Dutch language today. Over the years – some have been around for hundreds of years already – their meaning have changed significantly. That’s why I tried to find the origins for all these Dutch sayings in today’s blog post, and try to shed some light on these most quirky phrases!
My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Food!
1. To sit with the baked pears
Met de gebakken peren zitten
Meaning: To be left to deal with the negative consequences or bad outcome.
Origins: In the past, baked pears were a delicious dessert. So, if you were left with the baked pears, it meant your dinner guests hadn’t turned up. Personally, I would be disappointed to be stood up, but happy to have the baked pears all to myself, ha ha.
Nowadays, the ‘baked pears’ from the saying don’t refer to food anymore but rather to the negative or bad result/outcome of previous events.
2. To fall with your nose in the butter
Met de neus in de boter vallen
Meaning: To be lucky very unexpectedly / to arrive at just the right time. For example: you arrive at a party, right at the moment they are about to cut the birthday cake.
Trivia: In some parts of the country, they say ‘to fall with the bottom in the butter’. I guess they prefer to fall in the butter with their behind instead face down in those parts of the country.
Origins: It turns out that this saying has been used in Dutch since the 17th century already. During the annual fasting period following carnival, people weren’t allowed to eat certain foods including dairy products. However, if you were rich and willing to pay, you would be exempted. These lucky people were said to fall with their nose in the butter.
A special addition if you’re keen to learn more about the modern usage of this saying!
The exemption letter was also called a boterbriefje, which literally translates as ‘butter letter’. This phrase is still used in Dutch when people get married. We say they get a ‘butter letter’. Funny enough, the honeymoon period is called the ‘white bread weeks’ (wittebroodsweken). Handy for the newlyweds to have bread and butter 😉
3. Little holy bean
Meaning: Someone’s being hypocritical. They’re pretending to be a better person than they are.
Origins: There are several theories for the origins of this saying, but I found the following the most interesting. According to this theory, the word boontje (little bean) derived from bontje (colourful clothing). This referred to the clothing the children in orphanages would wear. With the saying heilig bontje people meant that orphans were such sweet angels. Later this was used ironically as people didn’t consider orphans as well-behaved at all. After the word bontje was no longer used in the meaning of orphan, it was replaced by the word boontje. (Source: Onze Taal)
4. To save a little apple for the thirst
Een appeltje voor de dorst bewaren
Meaning: To put aside money for bad times.
Origins: This saying dates back to the 18th century already. I couldn’t find elaborate information about its origins, but apparently people used to literally save apples to eat for later, in case times got tough.
Why specifically apples? I couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation for this. The only information I found was that you could keep apples for quite a while. I’m sure there were more food items you could keep for a longer period of time though. But perhaps they weren’t as juicy as apples. There seems to be a reference to the juice in the last part of the saying: ‘for the thirst’. If you have more info on the origins of this saying, please share it in a comment below!
5. Having eaten no cheese of something
Ergens geen kaas van hebben gegeten.
Meaning: To not know anything about a topic/being unfamiliar with something.
Origins: Cheese is the staple food in the Netherlands and you can expect everyone to know what cheese is. Apparently, we eat 3.5 kilos of cheese a head a year! Even Julius Caesar noticed the great amount of cheese people in the Lowlands consumed and wrote about it in 57 BC. It’s no surprise that Dutch people sometimes call themselves ‘cheese heads’ (kaaskoppen).
So within this context, the Dutch saying you haven’t eaten any cheese of it actually means you don’t know your cheese. (Which is of course unheard of for any Dutchie!)
6. Participate for bacon and beans
Voor spek en bonen meedoen
Meaning: In games ‘to participate for bacon and beans’ means that you don’t win any points, nor can you lose. The other variation ‘to sit somewhere for bacon and beans’ means your opinions aren’t heard. It doesn’t matter what you say or do, all goes unnoticed.
Origins: In the past labourers wouldn’t always receive wages. But if you did unpaid labour, you could at least count on getting a big hearty meal, i.e. bacon and beans. So, you would literally work for bacon and beans. Don’t agree to work for bacon and beans when someone offers you that today, because unlike in the past you won’t even get a meal out of it!
7. To know what meat you have in the barrel
Weten wat voor vlees je in de kuip hebt
Meaning: To know what type of person you’re dealing with, what they’re traits and skills are.
Origins: The oldest reference I found dates back to the 17th century. Back then, people didn’t have refrigerators of course. So the only way to keep meat for a longer time, was to salt it, typically in big barrels. Obviously, customers would like to know what type of meat was in the barrel and what quality it was. Nowadays the saying doesn’t refer to meat anymore but to humans. Not with the intention of eating them though, we haven’t turned to cannibalism (yet). Instead of their meat quality, we use the saying to refer to someone’s personal qualities. Phew!
8. That’s a little egg
Dat is een eitje, or simply: eitje
Meaning: That’s very easy / easy peasy.
Origins: There are several sayings in Dutch that use the word ‘egg’ to denote that something’s very easy or very cheap. The expression ‘for an apple and an egg’ for example means that something’s very cheap’. Its usage dates back to the 18th century already. ‘That a little egg’, or just ‘little egg’, probably is connected to this. It might be short for ‘soft-boiled egg’, meaning that something is very easy (since soft-boiled eggs are easy to eat).
9. To throw soot in the food
Roet in het eten gooien.
Meaning: To spoil things.
Origins: Yes, if someone would throw soot in my food, it would certainly spoil things for me! The first written evidence for this saying dates back to the 19th century. At the time, carbon was sometimes used in medicine (and still is), which would leave a black soot after burning. Because of its bitter taste, the word ‘soot’ (roet) started to mean ‘to ruin something tasty’ which then evolved into ‘ruining things’ in a more general sense.
10. A change in food makes one eat
Verandering van spijs doet eten
Meaning: It’s good to mix things up once in a while to keep things interesting.
Origins: Unfortunately I didn’t succeed in finding any information on the origins of this saying except for its first written recording in 1914. If you do know more about it, let me know in a comment below!
Haven’t had enough of these quirky Dutch sayings?
Then head over to my previous blog post about:
My 10 Favourite Dutch Sayings Featuring Animals
Do you know some other curious Dutch sayings or expressions that feature food? Or in your own language perhaps? Do share them with me in a comment below!
Thanks, Zarina xx