When you settle in a foreign country with the intention to stay a while, you try to learn the language. Which is a noble goal all by itself, and quite an achievable one when you stick to the let's-learn-the-vocabulary-by-heart stage.
Following an actual conversation, never mind talking yourself, turns out to be a different matter altogether. Especially when the Flemish start throwing their favourite expressions into the conversation. It's then that you realise that things, like so much in Flanders, are not quite what they seem.
But for those who wish (dare) to venture into this wonderful area of the linguistic unknown, here are the 10 expressions you'd best know about before venturing outside in Flanders.
1. "Nu komt de aap uit de mouw"
Direct translation: "Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve"
Meaning & origin: Now the truth is revealed. This idiom naturally gives rise to questions such as "What sleeve?", "Why is there a monkey in the sleeve?" and "Why has the monkey chosen this particular moment to emerge?". It is often debated whether the monkey is a literal one or not, but if one origin story of this saying is to be believed performers and street artists would hide a monkey in their sleeve back in the day to do tricks that seemed impossible. At the end of the performance the monkey would literally 'come out of the sleeve' and reveal the trick.
English equivalent: "Now the cat’s out of the bag" or "To let the cat out of the bag" (admittedly, this is equally weird)
2. "Iemand in de bloemetjes zetten"
Direct translation: "To put someone in the flowers"
Meaning & origin: To celebrate someone (i.e. honor or spoil them). But rest assured, if, when reading this expression, you spontaneously have a mental image of someone being dumped in a flowerbed, we're in the same boat. Where this one came from? One can only guess… so I'll leave it to your imagination.
English equivalent: None, really… At least none, I found.
3. "Dat is een ander paar mouwen"
Direct translation: "That’s another pair of sleeves"
Meaning & origin: That’s something different. We actually stole this expression from the French, who say "C’est une autre paire de manches", which may or may not originate from 18th century tourneys where knights would wear the sleeve of their beloveds as a sign of their favour (apparently there was a sort of sleeve-protector that was detachable?). Therefore, a new sleeve would signify infidelity, or a new love affair. Clearly, these knights didn’t realize that discretion is the better part of valour.
English equivalent: "That’s a different kettle of fish"
4. "Twee handen op één buik"
Direct translation: "Two hands on one stomach"
Meaning & origin: Two people that are very alike, i.e. think and act the same. The two hands in this expression refer to the hands of a single person, which are naturally always in harmony. Why the hands happen to be resting on a stomach is unclear (we hope it’s the person’s own stomach but can’t be certain).
English equivalent: "Two peas in a pod"
5. "In de aap gelogeerd zijn"
Direct translation: "To be living in the monkey"
Meaning & origin: To be in a difficult or sticky situation. The origin of this expression is not known for certain, but one possibility involves an inn called The Monkey which, as you may have guessed, was particularly unpleasant. It is said that a stay there could result in dire consequences. What these consequences were exactly is perhaps best left to the imagination.
English equivalent: To be in in dire straits
6. "Haar op de tanden hebben"
Direct translation: "To have hair on one's teeth"
Meaning & origin: To be able to defend/stick up for yourself (verbally), to be assertive. The origin of this expression is the somewhat irrational belief that there is a direct connection between body hair and strength. Therefore, if someone were to have hair on as improbable a place as their teeth, it was obviously a sign of superior strength. How physical strength developed into verbal proficiency is uncertain, but know that peculiar body hair is something to be proud of.
English equivalent: "To be able to hold your own"
7. "Vechten tegen de bierkaai"
Direct translation: "To fight against the beer wharf"
Meaning & origin: To fight a losing battle. This idiom has existed in the Dutch language for hundreds of years and originates from the workers in Amsterdam who would carry barrels of beer from the wharf. As these were very heavy, the workers were of the muscular and strong type, so to fight against one of them would be decidedly ill advised.
English equivalent: Not found one yet...
8. "Het regent pijpenstelen"
Direct translation: "It’s raining pipe stems"
Meaning & origin: It’s raining very heavily. The origin of this idiom actually makes sense for once. It stems (no pun intended) from a comparison between the shape of long, heavy raindrops and the white stems of gold pipes.
English equivalent: It’s raining cats and dogs (not necessarily better)
9. "Een appeltje voor de dorst"
Direct translation: "An apple for the thirst"
Meaning & origin: To set something aside (i.e. money) for times of need. No idea how the apples came into this one.
English equivalent: "Save it for a rainy day" (which you can do with apples, I guess…)
10. "De bloemetjes buiten zetten"
Direct translation: "To put the flowers outside"
Meaning & origin: To let loose, go out and party. The origin of this idiom is unknown, but similarly to the English expression 'paint the town red', it is assumed that flowers used to be put outside in preparation for festivities. So now the normally peaceful connotations of flowers are temporarily supplanted with something like: 'party hard'.
English equivalent: To paint the town red.
Originally from Belgium, Alexia Labouverie lived abroad for most of her life due to her father’s job as a diplomat. She now studies literature in Scotland, and is fascinated by the cultural collisions and exchanges experienced by expats, though she still prefers French fries to haggis.