Dutch Language Blog

Dutch Idioms 22 – Clocks Posted by on Jun 25, 2021 in Culture, Dutch Language, Idioms

Welcome to another post on Dutch Idioms. Today, we have a spreekwoord (saying) and an uitdrukking (expression) on time – specifically related to our timepieces! While one is comforting, the other is rather stressful. These two idioms show you how differently time can be perceived, even if measured by the same device!

For other idioms in this series, click here.

Zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens

Dutch Idioms Clocks klok tikt

Photo by Lucian Alexe on Unsplash

Literally: Like the clock ticks at home, it ticks nowhere

There’s no place like home


You’re on a beautiful vakantie (holiday), you’re having the time of your life, and after a week you go travel back. Packing, stressful trip to the airport, sitting in an uncomfortable seat for a couple of hours, waiting for your luggage, hauling it up the stairs to your apartment. And here we are. The key opens the huisdeur (front door), that familiar smell enters your nostrils. A breath in, a breath out – finally, home! We all know the feeling. Home, sweet home.

The Dutch describe this feeling as zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens – so the way your clock ticks, it ticks nowhere. But why does it have to involve a clock? Couldn’t the Dutch simply say “het is nergens zoals thuis”?

Maybe. But what’s with the clock?

This is likely simply related to the sound of your clock ticking at home. Like perhaps the smell of your home, another constant is the continuous tick-tock of your clock. And each klok sounds a little different – so that constant background sound only exists in your own walls. Nowhere else!

It’s a spreekwoord that can be used in both formal and informal context without issue.

Here’s an example:

Mark kwam na een lange reis terug naar huis. Eindelijk thuis!, dacht hij met een glimlach toen hij ging zitten op zijn favoriete fauteuil. Zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens.

(Mark came home after a long trip. Finally, home!, he thought with a smile when he sat down in his favorite armchair).

Het is vijf voor twaalf

Dutch Idioms Clocks Vijf voor Twaalf

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Literally: It is five to twelve

Time is running out


Go quick! Het is vijf voor twaalf! Time is running out!

This uitdrukking refers to a clock again. A day ends at midnight, and a new one starts. If there are only five minutes left of the day, and you still have something to finish, you have to opschieten (hurry)! Many deadlines happen at the end of a day, right at midnight – and that’s essentially where this uitdrukking originates. Where it started is hard to say, because such pressure has always existed. Even the Bible speaks of te elfder ure (at the eleventh hour), which refers to the time right before sundown.

These days, you will hear vijf voor twaalf a lot in news items, for example on a pending niertransplantatie (kidney transplant), the pensioenhervorming (pension reform) or klimaatverandering (climate change). It is used all the time! And so, it can be used both formally and informally. Although you do see it more written than hear it spoken these days.

The nice thing about the five minutes before twelve is that you can increase the urgency by going with fewer minutes before twaalf, for example twee minuten voor twaalf.

Here’s an example:

Er zijn weer recordtemperaturen bereikt – het is echt vijf voor twaalf, misschien zelfs al twee voor twaalf, om de klimaatverandering tegen te gaan.

(Again, record temperatures have been reached – it really is five before twelve, perhaps even two before twelve, to fight climate change.)

Have you heard this spreekwoord and uitdrukking before? Have you used them? Are there others that you would like to see explained? Let me know in the comments below!

Do you want to know how to tell the time in Dutch? Check out this post:

Telling Time in Dutch: A Refresher

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.