Luke Worthy

Angel Pee, Toad Shields, and Dead Cats: the Poetry of Dutch Words & Idioms

If poetry is made stronger by imagery that forces us to see the world differently, offering unfamiliar angles and distinctive metaphors that shine a new light on the everyday, then the Dutch language has plenty of inspiration to offer.

In English, we are all too familiar with our ‘cup of tea’, cats and dogs falling from the sky, or the pot talking back to the kettle. Even though the absurdity of these idioms is dimmed by frequent use, they function in ways literal meanings cannot; there is something about them that just works. What better image than a puddle of spilt milk, for those things we cannot save? Or how we turn into sardines when a lot of us pack into a lift or train carriage? We use idiomatic language constantly. Following on from Beth’s recent posts that elevate those mundane things we take for granted, I wish to find poetry in idioms and words from the country I now call home, in the hope that this can foster reflection on the poetry hidden in everyday language.  

Even through the struggle, I am fascinated by Dutch words and expressions, their bluntness, and their magic.

When I moved to the Netherlands three years ago, I was met with a language I had never really heard before. Even though Dutch is perhaps one of the closest languages to English, the grammar is incredibly different – and, as with any language, there are new vocal muscles to excavate. Whenever I try to speak a bit of Dutch, I sound like a gargling car exhaust and not like the smooth start of engines I hear around me. But even through the struggle, I am fascinated by Dutch words and expressions, their bluntness, and their magic. 

The Dutch word for lighthouse can be translated as ‘fire tower’ (vuurtoren). When I learnt this, I pictured sailors crossing the North Sea and seeing the flat sliver of coast aglow with burning towers, and boats guided by the flames. The Dutch word for turtle translates to toad shield (schilpad), which gave me this image of a toad picking a shield from the castle wall and jumping into the ocean. The Dutch word for slug is perhaps the most frank: naked snail (naaktslak). Another I find particularly wonderful is the word for an apple core: ‘klokhuis’, which, if you can’t see it, can be translated as clock house. 

Dutch idioms, too, offer poetic imagery that is as beautiful as it is bizarre. Here are my favourites: 

1. “Cucumber time!” (Komkommertijd) 

This term refers to a quiet period of summer, where very little happens, and is connected to frivolous news stories that come about at this time. After researching this I found that komkommertijd is not an exclusively Dutch idiom but appears in other languages (Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovene), but as gherkins or pickles. In the 1800s, ‘cucumber time’ was used in English to denote a slow season for tailors. 

2. “To sit with your mouth full of teeth.” (Met de mond vol tanden staan).

Instead of being speechless, in Dutch you can say that you are sat with a mouthful of teeth. A disturbing image but one that really captures that weight of being utterly astonished.  

3. “As if an angel is peeing on your tongue.” (Alsof er een engeltje over je tong piest).

Enjoying your meal that much? This idiom is used when the food is so good it feels like divine intervention.

4. “To fall with the door into the house.” (Met de deur in huis vallen).

This is used when someone gets straight to the point.

5. “They who have butter on their head should stay out of the sun.” (Wie boter op zijn hoofd heeft, moet uit de zon blijven). 

Instead of saying, as we do in English, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, the Dutch variation involves butter. This apparently can be traced back to times in the Netherlands when people used to head-carry their shopping, and so butter could leak out and intensify sunburn. 

6. Its raining pipe-stems! (Het regent pijpenstelen).

It rains a lot in the Netherlands, so of course there are many metaphors to describe it. Over this flat land, it can rain cow tails (koeiestaarten), bricks (bakstenen), and believe me, razors (scheermessen). 

My favourite phrase, however, is one that a friend told me. We were complaining about those friends who come to you with their problems and expect you just to listen. It doesn’t matter what you are going through, this person will always have it worse. Gay men, I fear, know all too well what it’s like to be cast as the support role, the GBF stock character that is only there to validate. My friend told me about the phrase ‘my cat is deader’ (mijn kat is doder), which is used to mock this competitive hierarchy of suffering, and I was instantly compelled to write a poem. 

Mijn Kat

Let’s face it, our troubles are not even a side dish,
not a smudge of roadkill in the rear view, not worthy
of doubling back to mourn. Yours are posted daily.
Fresh and black, blue and bloody – your dead cat

ready to snapshot, plate-up. You stand sharp-knived
at the head of each candle-lit vigil for resurrection
onto our tongues. The slicing up of vealy flesh, your week
from hell
. We scan the wine list for new traumas,

pretend to chew, fold more mouth into napkin.
Flies conga the open carcass of your words, spreading
on a shock of white tablecloth. All you’ve lost
furballs onto our plates. The restaurant froths

in a fanfare of laments and phantom purrs.
We make our solemn toast to your dead cat.
All 280 characters of it, revived on cue, and served
at each banquet of pity, the weekly funeral of your heart.

Writing Prompt:

Words and idioms in translation can offer amazing points of departure for poetry. If none of the above Dutch words or idioms have enticed your creative juices (even though I’d love to read a cucumber-time poem), find some idioms from other languages that might inspire you, and run with it. 

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