Dragging old cows out of the ditch: how idioms creep in when you’re not looking

We all know Holland is famous for cows. And tulips.  They’re everywhere you look. In the landscape. And in the language. When the Dutch don’t cry over spilt milk, they refuse to drag old cows out of a ditch.  And when they do want to paint the town red, they put little flowers outside. Vivid idioms that creep into your vocabulary when you’re not looking.

After 30 years in the Netherlands I still come out with Dutch expressions I never knew I knew. Like when I turned down an IT-editing job because ‘ik had er geen kaas van gegeten’. I’d never consciously learned the term. But it felt better than fessing up to IT ignorance.

Workshop for idioms

As a word nerd I love this stuff. So I jumped at the chance to attend a workshop on translating idioms. Run by that daring duo of Dutch-English translation, Tony Parr and Marcel Lemmens, it was bound to be fun. I learned a lot and smiled so much my cheeks hurt.  What really rocked my boat was discovering a dictionary of seafaring expressions.

Now I can say what I didn’t know I knew with authority. Able to picture just how easy a ‘luizenbaantje’ is, and just how far you’ve sunk when you sit on the ground.  Etymology my dear Watson. Brittania may rule the waves, but the Dutch run rings around us when it comes to sailors, ships and the sea.

What I can’t get my head around is those apes. The real ones. Coming out of sleeves. Running boarding houses for the down-at-heel. Cows I can handle. Cheese and tulips too. They’re indigenous species. But who let those apes in? What are they doing here?  I need to know. En daar komt de ware aap uit de mouw.

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