Belgium Unlocked

Twenty untranslatable expressions that will instantly make you sound more Belgian

Twenty untranslatable expressions that will instantly make you sound more Belgian
Credit: Nicolas Maeterlinck / Belga

It is a truth universally acknowledged that in order to truly master a language you must not only master its vocabulary, grammar, and accent — you must also master its idioms.

However, as any language enthusiast also knows, working out which local expressions to use, and knowing when to use them, can be a profoundly confusing affair. Moreover, when translated back into one's native tongue, they can sound downright nonsensical.

This is especially true in Belgium, where even expats who moved to the country many years ago – and are already fluent in French or Dutch – might have absolutely no idea what their Belgian friends are talking about when they state that a mutual acquaintance has lost his sandwiches, or when they happily suggest that a non-fishy dessert is the nose of the salmon.

To remedy this situation, The Brussels Times is pleased to present you with its twenty favourite idioms (10 in French, and 10 in Dutch), which we hope will prove handy in a variety of different Belgian contexts: whether you're eating at your local frituur, having a hearty family stoofvlees dinner, or arguing passionately in a Brussels bar about which Belgian footballer was better between Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

Our hope is that, at the very least, this list will allow you to refrain in future from having to bite on your chewing gum — even if you don't have all the fries in the same bag.

Dutch expressions

"Dat is peperduur."

Literally means: That's pepper expensive.

Actually means: That's extremely expensive.

Closest English equivalent: That costs an arm and a leg.

"Het neusje van de zalm."

Literally means: The nose of the salmon.

Actually means: The best of the lot.

Closest English equivalent: The cherry on the cake.

"Ik heb het niet door."

Literally means: I don't have it through.

Actually means: I don't understand it.

Closest English equivalent: I don't get it.

"Het regent pijpestelen."

Literally means: It's raining pipe handles.

Actually means: It's raining a lot.

Closest English equivalent: It's raining cats and dogs.

"Met de mond vol tanden staan."

Literally means: Standing with a mouth full of teeth.

Actually means: Not being able to utter a word, being embarrassed.

Closest English equivalent: Being tongue-tied.

"Maak dat de kat wijs."

Literally means: Convince the cat of that.

Actually means: I don't believe you.

Closest English equivalent: You're pulling my leg.

"Nu komt de aap uit de mouw."

Literally means: Now the monkey comes out of the sleeve.

Actually means: Now the real truth or meaning has become clear.

Closest English equivalent: Now the mask is off.

"De kogel is door de kerk."

Literally means: The bullet is through the church.

Actually means: The decision has been made (usually said after a long discussion or deliberation).

Closest English equivalent: He/she has made up his/her mind.

"Wat is er aan de hand?"

Literally means: What is on the hand?

Actually means: What is going on?

Closest English equivalent: What's up?

"Van een muis een olifant maken."

Literally means: To make an elephant out of a mouse.

Actually means: To make a big deal out of nothing.

Closest English equivalent: To make a mountain out of a molehill.

French expressions

"Ne pas avoir toutes les frites dans le meme sachet."

Literally means: To not have all the fries in one bag.

Actually means: To be stupid or slow.

Closest English equivalent: To not be the sharpest tool in the shed.

"Mordre sur sa chique."

Literally means: To bite on one's chewing gum.

Actually means: To restrain oneself, or conceal one's true feelings or emotions.

Closest English equivalent: To hold one's tongue.

“Perdre ses tartines.”

Literally means: To lose one's toast/sandwiches.

Actually means: To go crazy.

Closest English equivalent: To lose one's marbles.

“Battre le beurre”

Literally means: To beat the butter.

Actually means: To be unproductive.

Closest English equivalent: To mess around.

"Chou vert et vert chou."

Literally means: Green cabbage and cabbage green.

Actually means: These two things are essentially the same.

Closest English equivalent: Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

"Etre bleu de quelqu'un."

Literally means: To be blue about someone.

Actually means: To be in love with someone.

Closest English equivalent: To be head over heels in love with someone.

"Jouer avec les pieds de quelqu'un." 

Literally means: To play with the feet of someone.

Actually means: To annoy someone.

Closest English equivalent: To grind someone's gears.

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"Ne pas pouvoir le sucer de son pouce."

Literally means: To not be able to suck it from one's thumb.

Actually means: To not be able to correctly guess at something.

Closest English equivalent: To not be able to figure something out.

"Se disputer pour des queues de cerises."

Literally means: To argue over cherry tails.

Actually means: To argue over trivial or unimportant matters.

Closest English equivalent: To argue over trifles.

“Faire le Bob”

Literally means: To make the Bob/Bobette.

Actually means: To be the designated driver.

Closest English equivalent: N/A.

Lauren Walker, Maïthé Chini, and Lukas Taylor also contributed to this article. 

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