More Dutch words that sound English, but don’t mean what you might think

This housing could be under water in more ways than one. Photo:

Just when you thought you were getting to grips properly with Dutch, along comes a word that you think you know, but actually means something else. We’ve written about these pesky little misunderstandings before, but here are a few more.

“Going down to look at the action” does not mean you are going to check out what is happening. It means you are heading for Dutch budget retail store where you can load your shopping basket with bargains that you did not realise you needed.

A bank is, of course, a place to store your money, if you can find one any more. More commonly it means a sofa or a settee.

My dog is in the bench, a Dutch person may tell you, and you may well wonder what Fido is doing inside a piece of furniture. It is not doing anything. The poor animal has been locked in a cage “for its own safety” because its owner has not done the dog training course and can’t control it.

When the Dutch say they are putting their bike in the box, they do not mean a designated bike shaped cardboard box to shove it in but a handy storage space in the cellar of their apartment building.

As in the case of “smoking” (see below), the lazy Dutch took only half of the original term, which in this case was  “box room” and have made do with just box ever since. Its meaning has shifted away from the original English meaning as well, from room for boxes in the house to an external space for stuff. Not to be confused with “boks” which means to box. With gloves.

It may well serve coffee but it is really a licenced cannabis cafe where you can buy illegal weed legally. Most require you to prove you’re a Dutch citizen and that you are 18 or older before you can buy your maximum of 5 grammes a day.

An oldtimer is not a senior citizen but a classic car in Dutch and, as far as we can gather, in Germany as well.  It is usually rich oldtimers who drive oldtimers.

We are continually being told that Amsterdam and, well the Netherlands in general, had thousands of monuments. Monuments to what? you may ask. Rather than being a statue or obelisk to commemorate some hero or event, a monument in NL means a building which needs to be preserved because it is part of the nation’s heritage. In English, a monument is a listed building.

Onder water
When a Dutch homeowner tells you their house is under water, it doesn’t mean it is flooded (although that is becoming increasingly likely). It means they are sunk because of negative equity – the value of their house is less than the outstanding mortgage.

Playbacken is the Dutch verb for miming to music, not re-listening to a recording to make sure you understood what is being said. The Playbackshow was a popular tv programme in the Netherlands once upon a time, featuring people miming famous acts and with a separate section for people making odd sounds with their body parts.

Ghost rider? What on earth is that supposed to mean? you ask. Actually, if you’re a Brit you may well, at some point, become one, hard-wired as you are to drive on the left. A spookrijder is someone who drives on the wrong side of the motorway, usually oblivious to frantic warning signs from oncoming traffic and hastily called police.

When the Dutch say smoking they mean a tuxedo or a dinner jacket. Apparently the Dutch abbreviated the English ‘smoking jacket’ to smoking, turned it into a noun and extended its meaning to cover the whole outfit. You can still look smoking in it, though.

Total loss
My car is total loss, a traffic accident victim may tell you, meaning not that their car’s satnav has gone haywire, but that the vehicle is a write-off.

The adjective vitaal is usually used to describe oldies who keep in shape and zoom around on their electric bikes. They are definitely not considered to be “vital”, or very important to the survival of the economy. Not a day goes by without a description of old people as a drain on resources. So it’s vital for oldies to remain vitaal, or else.

More Dutch words open to confusion?: Here’s a list of 17 more.

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