Dutch and Fun Literal Translations

by Yaska Sahara

This is the last installment of my Netherlands series (for now at least). I’ve discussed my bittersweet relationship with the Netherlands and then went on the journey of learning conversational Dutch as an Anglophone international student (previous post). Now, I’m going to discuss one of the beauties of the language and the fun memories attached to it. This is an example of how language learning can produce lovely memories and funny stories.

Dutch is known to be quite a literal language compared to English where we often make entirely new words for a concept or an object instead of just combining words. The case of literal Dutch also likely sticks out to English speakers as the languages are in many ways quite similar. Many languages use this literal word composition. But I believe it is strange to English speakers due to the mix of romance, Latin, Greek, and germanic vocabulary in the English language. We have literal terms in English sometimes, like sun + glasses = sunglasses. But I notice it far more in Dutch. An example is Huisdier (House animal) meaning ‘pet’. I found it sounded more like a creature for labour.

I must warn you to take care though, too much literal translation can result in sounding off, or very childlike. Another reason to take care is that the goal is to think in the target language naturally, not to translate it all the time. Having said that, in some cases, it can be fun to learn about etymology, and it can help you to remember certain words.

While you cannot make up your own literal translations, it is alarming just how many words are literal this way. And to me as a native English speaker, even the legitimate Dutch words sound childish or weird upon literal translation. While I do make fun of my Dutch friends, it does make sense. Why not make things straightforward? In many ways, we Anglophones are the weird ones when you think about it.

Interestingly, sometimes the Dutch make English literal in the same way as Dutch, their bilingual brains either slipping or stretching to communicate when they forget the actual word. This is often referred to as Dunglish, I believe. This Wikipedia entry says the following “The Dutch word for the poorest form of Dunglish, steenkolenengels (“Coal English”), goes back to the early twentieth century when Dutch port workers used a rudimentary form of English to communicate with the personnel of English coal ships.


Here are some stories of literal translations I discovered and will now never forget:

Zouthout (Sweetwood) – At a friend’s place with their family, I was asked if I wanted tea. I always do so I said ‘yes’. I then asked what my options were and was told, ‘earl grey, chamomile, and sweetwood.’ For one moment, I was perplexed. But surprisingly, I understood in a second that it was licorice tea. I love that tea so I guess I made the connection easily. It is, after all, sweet wood.

(Clockhouse) – So my friend started sending me Dutch sesame street (sesamstraat) clips. In one of them on counting apples, this word came up. I found out from my friend that it refers to the core of the apple. She is half-Dutch, and she herself had no idea why it was called that. She then did a quick google and it seemed like it was because old clock tower bells resembles an apple core. We found it so funny that it genuinely was such a simple explanation. I often find myself thinking that it’s so simple, too simple, so it can’t be the answer. 


Eirstokken (Egg sticks) – ‘What the hell is that?’, you ask? Ovaries. This one has me rolling with laughter because it is a genuine term that I came across when reading a medical brochure on women’s health at my GP.

I remember at a later point in time a friend of mine was experiencing pain and she wasn’t sure how to explain, she said it was from her egg sticks, and was surprised when I instantly knew what she meant. Again, makes sense. But very peculiar sounding to the native Anglophone mind, especially since it isn’t just slang, but the real word for it.


Zeehond (Sea dog) – This one happened when a friend and I were discussing cute animals and her mind lapsed, unable to remember the word ‘seal’. She explained in Dutch it was called a ‘sea dog’ and once again, it didn’t take long to know what she meant, though I did laugh.

Similarly, vogelbekdier (bird beak animal) was another funny discovery from that same conversation! It means platypus.

More fun animal things: 

  • Zeekoe (Seacow) – manatee
  • Schildpad (Shield-toad) – tortoise 
  • Nijlpaard (Nile-Horse) – Hippopotamus
    — In other germanic languages I hear it is ‘river horse’. Many of these words are the same/similar in other germanic languages from what I hear. 

(handshoes) – This one had me genuinely blank when I first heard it. I was walking with a friend, expressing that I was cold and blowing into my hands then rapidly putting them into my pockets. He said, “Do you want my handshoes?” And I looked at him blankly. He then took out his gloves and we had a hilarious second staring at each other in confusion. The others kind of made sense, but ‘shoe’? Not ‘hand-warmer’, ‘hand-jumper’? But shoe? Anyway, I did borrow his handschoenen for a while and I warmed up.


Tandvlees (tooth meat) – You can probably guess this one. But this was interesting as it was one I, perhaps like a regular Dutch person, just accepted until I thought about it. I knew tand meant tooth because dentist is tandarts (tooth doctor). I’d learnt that through observation. I knew vlees was meat, from signs at the supermarket. Then one day I saw a toothpaste advert and realised, ‘oh my god they call gums tooth meat’. It sounded funny, but also a little gross.

Side note: Tandpasta is like English, tooth-paste. But when I read it I just thought ‘cold pasta?’, because ‘tand’ (ठंड) in Hindi, means ‘cold’.


These experiences of discovering fun translations really helped for me to learn and get excited about Dutch, as I don’t have too much interest in Germanic languages normally.

I hope you enjoyed these little anecdotes, to my Dutch-speaking readers hearing an outsider perspective or to the confused and amused others! I hope this can show you how interesting and fun it can be to dissect words in any language you’re using!

Comment funny literal translation you know, Dutch or otherwise!

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