Ten Dutch words and phrases that don’t translate well into English

The Netherlands hosts more than one official language and Frysian, spoken in the northeast corner, is the most similar language to English globally. Nevertheless, Dutch has developed a distinctive vocabulary and phonetics that make some words and phrases nearly impossible to interpret to English speakers.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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1. Leuk

Most dictionaries will translate leuk as “fun”, as in a descriptor of a situation or activity. Dat was leuk is easy to understand as “that was fun.” Otherwise it is widely used as an adjective describing people as cute, interesting and cool, all depending on the inflection of the sentence. Ik vind hem leuk would mean “I’m attracted to him,” while Dat zijn leuke mensen more likely means “Those are people I like to hang out with.” The simplest way to use leuk is as a one-word response to someone asking how your vacation was, or a date, or your school day. Again, the tone in which you respond leuk can truly range from tepid to inspired. It’s one of the most used descriptors in Dutch language.

2. Fijn

Pronounced nearly the same as “fine,” it definitely is not the snotty response you get from a teenager when you ask them to do the dishes. It means “good” or “delicate” or “pleasant.” You can describe a chocolate or a garment as being fijn. It’s also similar to leuk as a response to how something was, but decisively warmer in meaning. So, when you went to the concert with your aunt, and you describe it as fijn, it could mean you had a nice conversation and you’re more likely to reflect on it fondly than if you just called it leuk.

3. Lekker

Most literally this means “tasty,” as in describing something you eat or drink. If you call someone a lekker ding (tasty thing) you are saying you think they are attractive. But when you say Dat is lekker, it completely depends on inflection whether you mean “That is tasty” or “Sheesh, that sucks.” So, when you tell someone you had a flat tire on the A58 and they say lekker, don’t feel offended that they enjoy your hardship — they are in fact empathizing.

4. Gezellig

Gezellig and its German cousin gemütlich are basically the same, and appear to exist only in neighboring languages. It means homey or cozy in a warm and loving way, and can describe both a place and a social situation.

5. Apetrots

Monkey pride. This has nothing whatsoever to do with monkeys, and simply means you are prouder than you should be according to Dutch social code, which would tell you to be humble and not outspoken at all times, unless you want your head to be lopped off as you stick it taller than the mowed field. Remember also, “tall trees catch a lot of wind,” so expect to be reprimanded for boasting or showing any pride. Better to wait for others to point out for you that you did something well and politely deflect the compliment.

6. Boterham

Butter ham. But it’s just a slice of bread you are free to cover with anything — you are not restricted to just ham.

7. Ezelsbruggetje

A “little donkey bridge” describes the way your mind can remember something by thinking of something else. For example, when you can’t remember your aunt Miriam’s name, you can remember by creating a trigger about her husband, who makes mirrors. Mir-ror: Mir-iam. One of the most conspicuous donkey bridges that I still use to this day, is tracing your knuckles to remember if a month has 30 or 31 days. It makes more sense the longer you think about it. Donkeys are (wrongly) used as icons for mental slowness. As they need to get from one field to the next, they could sure use that little bridge over there to make things easier.


8. Wel niet

I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to explain this, but I may not be able to. “Is isn’t” is the closest I get every time. It is the ultimate oxymoron and “yeah no” is similar, but doesn’t nearly reach the potential use of wel niet, which is thrown about sentences left and right in conversations all day. It’s used to emphasize seriousness or disbelief. Wat denk je wel niet? Is “What are you thinking?!” Het zal wel niet meer regenen, means “I suspect it won’t be raining.” and contains both the confirmation that describers the speaker’s emotional feelings about the statement they make that it likely won’t be raining. It’s confusing, even to Dutch people.

9. Voorpret

“Prefun” is fairly intuitive to interpret. It is that joyous feeling when thinking ahead to the weekend, or a party, or skydiving. The happy jump your heart makes when remembering you have a date tonight, or the butterflies in your tummy as you prepare for a trip. Similarly, napret or “afterfun,” is that same feeling but after the associated event. I guess this explains why the Dutch are consistently some of the happiest people in the world.

10. Uitwaaien

“To get blown out” is what we did every first fall storm on the Dutch seaside. Parents across the country would round up their kids, put on raincoats and rubber boots and collectively migrate to the beaches for a day. There, we were sent into the cold, murky waters to let it fill our boots. It works as an insulator while we sloshed up and down the sand dunes, leaning into gale-force winds, laughing and jumping as the rain and ocean splash felt like razor cuts to our faces. It was all worth it for the rare treat of hot chocolate and whipped cream at the café later. It’s cathartic and thought to be as psychologically helpful as seeing a therapist.

Bonus Word: Patatje Oorlog

This one is just so out of line that I had to include it. It is a strange descriptor of a fast-food dish involving French fries, mayonnaise, peanut sauce and chopped raw onions and literally translates to “fries at war” or “war fries.” The history was unknown to me until I looked it up for this article. Apparently, nobody knows who came up with the term or when exactly, but it began appearing on menus in a college town named Zwolle sometime in the eighties.

During highly contentious times of international conflict, it’s been attempted to change the name to gulf war fries, Sadam Hussein fries, Chernobyl fries, party fries, fries in political conflict, fries at peace and fries in a mess. These never caught on and mostly created anger in a culture proud of their quirky language inventions. The battlefield of fries is now cultural and culinary heritage and is likely to stick around.

I recommend you order “fries at war” when you are in the Netherlands next, and you will at once have all within earshot in stitches, and garner near-Dutch status and respect. It’s also incredibly tasty.

Marjolein Groot Nibbelink
Marjolein realized early on that the Netherlands was too small for her. After traveling to 30+ countries over the span of 10 years she moved to the United States in 2014. She holds a degree in Communication from the University of Rotterdam and has long had an affinity for creative writing.


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