Collections of glimmering naval treasures are abound as you traipse down the halls of Amsterdam’s National Maritime Museum. Weathered maps preserved in glass cases, wooden figureheads of sensuous sirens, golden compasses gleaming under downlights- all these treasures lay alongside glorious paintings depicting naval victory. The atmosphere is mythic. This is a nation intimately intertwined with the ocean, and plaque after plaque reinforces this profound connection. Yet, the Netherland’s connection to the water isn’t something that’s dissipated with the passing of the 17th-century Golden Age. Rather, a national identity so deeply entangled with its environment persists through a variety of connections. Indeed, beyond comprehensive water management procedures and the heritage preservation of polders, this connection most interestingly persists within the Dutch language.
This historical connection to the water is exemplified by the preponderance of Dutch idioms relating to water, oceans or shipping. The idiom is more than merely a pithy or amusing phrase- it can be viewed as a snapshot of cultural identity. The objects to which idioms most frequently refer, the general tone of these phrases, and the way these expressions have been modified across time all provide crucial insight into the people and history behind the language. These everyday phrases essentially constitute microcosms of broader culture, conveying information about a community’s historical origins through emphasising certain topics, places or objects.
Considering nearly a third of the Dutch population live below sea level (a percentage that was substantially greater in the past), references to canals, waterways, dikes, ships, sails, windmills, rivers and lakes in the Dutch lexicon are numerous.
Take, for example, ‘Een oogie in het zeil houden’, a phrase which literally means ‘to keep an eye in the sail’, but is used colloquially to mean ‘to watch over something or someone’ in the same way the English idiom, ‘to keep an eye on things’ would be used. The reference to ‘sails’ evokes images of the Netherlands’ rich maritime history, since as a country surrounded by water, shipping and land reclamation has been a fundamental component of its history since the 14th-century.
Similarly, the Dutch expression, ‘De huik naar de wind hangen’, meaning literally ‘to hang the sail-covers to the wind’, describes the process of ‘adapting one’s behaviour to circumstances’. For a sarcastic response similar to the English expression ‘armchair critics’, there is ‘De beste sturrleui staan aan wal’, which literally translates to ‘the best helmsmen stand on the shore’. These ship-related lexemes saturate the Dutch lexicon, their language focalised by the surrounding environment.
Furthermore, the significance of the landscape is reflected in proverbs such as ‘Voor een schip zonder haven is geen enkele winde de juiste’, literally meaning, ‘for a ship without harbour there is no wind which is the right one’, but figuratively translating to ‘home is the basis for a happy life’. Perhaps more than the other expressions listed, this phrase explicitly outlines the connection between landscape and identity; the phrase employs various lexemes pertaining to the seas, thus combining this invocation of naval history with a statement about one’s ‘home’- the central locus of their identity.
Evidently, the unique oceanic surroundings have infused the Dutch language with a certain maritime tilt; with history being firmly cemented in quotidian phrases, this connection to the land is continuously perpetuated by language.
Just as the abundance of water has shaped the linguistic identity of the Dutch, the landscape’s impact on language can also be witnessed within the idioms of Australian English. Indeed, references to our native flora and fauna, as well as to Australia’s vast, expansive stretches of land, are speckled throughout our national lexicon. We are a country with a worldwide reputation for our ‘dangerous’ wildlife and harsh outback, and unsurprisingly, our surroundings are reflected by the way in which we speak. For example, ‘Mad as a cut snake’ is an expression that refers to someone who could be described as eccentric, crazy or angry. Similarly the idiom, ‘Fit as a mallee bull’ refers quite tellingly to our unforgiving climate. Indeed, the phrase figuratively means someone who is rather fit or strong, and thus creatively conveys this meaning through reference to a type of bull that lives in particularly arid areas. In further reference to the Australian landscape, the expression ‘A cut lunch and a water bag’, figuratively meaning ‘an extremely far distance away’, is the sort of expression that would only naturally arise in such an unusually expansive country.
We have a variety of expressions relating to our natural wildlife, such as ‘flaming galah’ (meaning ‘what an idiot!’), ‘May your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny down’ (used to wish someone bad luck) and ‘Flat out like a lizard drinking’ (meaning ‘to be extremely busy’),which can also indicate the history of the relationship between Australia’s inhabitants and the environment. Take, for example, the phrase ‘a few roos loose in the top paddock’, an expression used to describe someone ‘a bit daft, strange or loopy’. Not only does this phrase reference Australia’s national wildlife, it also includes an Indigenous linguistic borrowing. In fact, many of the lexemes for Australia’s native flora and fauna – including ‘kangaroo’, ‘koala’, ‘waratah’, ‘quokka’, ‘bunyip’ and ‘kookaburra’ – are borrowed from various Indigenous languages.
Regardless of various cultural differences, the unique Australian landscape is constantly referenced throughout the various languages spoken at varying times across the same land; the landscape seeps into our slang and trickles into our everyday idioms. Just like the Dutch linguistic connection to water, the way that Australians relate to the world is often in terms of our unique wildlife and our rough sunburnt country. Idioms are more than just a cluster of amusing expressions; they offer us insight into a culture in several respects, and are a perpetual reminder of the environment’s ability to mould the way that we communicate.
Beth Seychell is currently studying for her undergraduate degree, majoring in English and Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne. In her spare time, she loves watching films and working on her book blog, @bethsbibliotheque. A few of her favourite things include peacocks, laksa and anything floral-printed.