Dutch Language Blog

Spreekwoorden en Uitdrukkingen (Sayings and Expressions) 1 – The Calf and The Stone Posted by on Jul 24, 2014 in Dutch Language

Spreekwoorden (sayings) and uitdrukkingen (expressions) are very useful in everyday language and knowing them makes things easier to understand when you hear them. In this series, I will try to explain the origin of the sayings and expressions, explain its use and give examples of possible ways of using them.

This week we will start off with a spreekwoord that is quite related to the consequences of the downing of flight MH17. All airlines now changed the airspace they fly over to avoid the (eastern) Ukrainian sky. There is a very interesting spreekwoord for this. This comes first.

The uitdrukking this week is one that Mark Rutte used just a few days ago when he talked about the investigation of this disaster. Just read on to find out what he said!

For other sayings and expressions in this series, click here.

Als het kalf verdronken is, dempt men de put

When the calf has drowned, the well is filled up (i.e. closing the stable door after the horse has bolted)

Just as the English spreekwoord, the Dutch one refers to a bad happening followed by action to prevent it from happening again. It obviously comes too late, and as such this spreekwoord can be seen as a verwijt (reproach). It is especially used in situations where one knew very well that something bad could occur, but just nothing was done. This can justify this verwijt.

Its origin lies in the sixteenth century, when the kalf was a kind (child). The switch only came in the seventeenth century. Another version that was used was: als het kind verdronken is, dempt men de gracht (when the child has drowned, the gracht is filled up). I suppose people found the spreekwoord using a child going just a bit too far…


This saying is quite widespread in the Dutch language. It is used in many occasions where something should have been done before, but nothing has been done. Examples:

Nadat een ongeluk was gebeurd, werd er op de weg eindelijk het snelheidlimiet aangepast. Als het kalf verdronken is, dempt men de put.

(After an accident had happened, the speed limit was finally changed on that road. It’s closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.)
Toen het vliegtuig was neergestort met alle gevolgen van dien, besloten alle vliegmaatschappijen het luchtruim te ontwijken.
(After the airplane had crashed with all consequences of it, all airlines decided to avoid the airspace.)
De onderste steen boven halen

To lift the lower stone to the top (to leave no stone unturned). 

So this stone never comes to the top! (Image by Jim McDougall at Flickr.com)

So this stone never comes to the top! (Image by Jim McDougall at Flickr.com)

This expression has a very interesting origin. Back in the days, when flour was still ground in a mill on millstones, two stones were used. The lower stone, the so-called ligger (“lie-er”, the lying stone), and the upper stone, the so-called loper (runner), both very heavy, were used to mill the grains. The loper, though very heavy, was turned sometimes to sharpen the stone. The ligger was never moved, let alone turned. So when you take that ligger to the top, in other words, turn that stone around, you are really onto something. Its meaning: to find something out to the bottom, no matter the costs. Even if such liggers have to be moved!
The use is just like the English expression to leave no stone unturned or to get to the bottom of something. Mark Rutte, the minister-president (Prime Minister) of the Netherlands, used it when he was referring to the investigation of the cause of the MH17 plane crash. Interestingly, the Malaysian leader used the same expression, to leave no stone unturned, in an earlier speech about the same topic.
We moeten dit voorval grondig onderzoeken en de onderste steen boven halen.
(We need to thoroughly investigate this happening and leave no stone unturned.)
Ik wil weten wie mijn knuffel heeft gestolen! Ik haal er de onderste steen voor boven!
(I want to know who stole my stuffed animal! I leaven no stone unturned!)
Any suggestions for other (English) sayings or expressions you would like to see explained? Please leave a comment!
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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.


  1. Forever:

    That’s really shdwre! Good to see the logic set out so well.