Dutch Language Blog

Spreekwoorden en Uitdrukkingen (Sayings and Expressions) 9 – Rocks Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Dutch Language, Dutch Vocabulary

I visited the grotten (caves) of Maastricht last weekend. They are entirely human-made, as the mergel (marl) in the Sint-Pietersberg (“Saint Peter’s Mountain”) has many uses. It is used as bouwmateriaal (construction material), ingredient for cement (concrete), veevoer (fodder), kleurstof (coloring) and kalkmeststof (agricultural lime). While there is no spreekwoord (saying) related to mergel, there is an uitdrukking (expression). I found a fitting spreekwoord though!

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

Een goede ziel weet van stenen brood te maken

Image by Wesual Click at Unsplash.com

A good soul knows how to make bread from stones

Making brood (bread) from stenen (stones) – impossible! Stenen are useless – brood is amazingly nutritious. The idea behind this spreekwoord is that you should be happy with what you get. Even if you are given something useless, you can be happy with it, you can figure it out.

The exact herkomst (origin) of this spreekwoord I could not find, but it appears to have a biblical herkomst. It probably refers to a lesson to avoid being gretig (greedy). The Dutch generally have a culture that is, let’s say, suspicious of gretigheid (greed).


I have not heard this spreekwoord a lot in everyday use, probably because the same message can be passed on with fewer words and in a less cryptic way. I could imagine it being used in the following way:

Wat moet ik met dit ding? Het is bijna 10 jaar oud, daar kan ik niet mee werken!

– Een goede ziel weet van stenen brood te maken.

(What am I supposed to do with this thing? It is almost 10 years old, I can’t work with this!
– A good soul knows how to make bread from stones.)

It does have a rather negative connotation, as you basically tell somebody that they are being greedy or ungrateful for what they have. If you want that undertone, however, it is an excellent spreekwoord. On to the uitdrukking!

Uitgemergeld zijn

Mergel (marl) (Image by jdegraaf at Flickr.com under license CC BY 2.0)

To be starved

Uitgemergeld zijn (to be starved) is an expression that relates to a body being just skin and bone due to honger (hunger), ziekte (sickness) or uitputting (exhaustion). It is especially related to a detrimental process that led to this condition. It is not a good state to be in, to say the least.

But where does it come from, how is mergel related to this? Is it at all?

There are different theories, actually.

The most widespread is that it is indeed related to the material mergel. As I said in the introduction, the stuff is used as kalkmeststofKalk (lime) is an important ingredient for well-fertilized soil. However, using too much mergel to fertilize is going to lead to unusable soil, as it does not contain any other voedingsstoffen (nutrients). This process of slowly draining the soil of nutrients it requires to be “alive” translates well to the meaning of the uitdrukking. So it does make sense!

However, other theories emphasize the German equivalent ausmergeln and how that came about. That word simply came from the Old German merg, marg or Mark, which means “power, energy”. So with uitmergelen – “out-marling”, you would literally take the power out of somebody.


The uitdrukking fits in all social settings, both formally and informally. You would not use it lightly, though – it does not just mean skinny, it really means skin and bone.

Na haar chemotherapie is ze hard achteruit gegaan. Ze is helemaal uitgemergeld.

(After her chemotherapy, she quickly deteriorated. She is just skin and bone now.)

What do you think of these two? Have you heard them before? Do you have equivalents in your language? Let me know in the comments below!

Tags: ,
Keep learning Dutch with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

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. Lennox:

    Flour is MADE BY grinding grain…..BETWEEN TWO Stones
    DUTCH windmills…..🙂👍

  2. Tom Dawkes:

    Undoubtedly an allusion to scriptural texts, regardless of the mill reference.
    “Toen werd Jezus van den Geest weggeleid in de woestijn, om verzocht te worden van den duivel. 2En als Hij veertig dagen en veertig nachten gevast had, hongerde Hem ten laatste. 3En de verzoeker, tot Hem gekomen zijnde, zeide: Indien Gij Gods Zoon zijt, zeg, dat deze stenen broden worden. 4Doch Hij, antwoordende, zeide: Er is geschreven: De mens zal bij brood alleen niet leven, maar bij alle woord, dat door den mond Gods uitgaat.” [Mattheüs 4:1-4]
    “En wat vader onder u, dien de zoon om brood bidt, zal hem een steen geven, of ook om een vis, zal hem voor een vis een slang geven?” [Lukas 11:11]

    • Sten:

      @Tom Dawkes Thank you for the reference, Tom!