11 untranslatable Dutch words (yes, gezellig is there)

Normally we would try and teach you some decent Dutch words (or maybe seven) in an article on the Dutch language. However, some Dutch words are just not meant to be translated, making it harder for the Non-Dutch speakers to ever truly get a sense of all this Dutch mambo jumbo.

Let’s take a look at these untranslatable Dutch words. We will give you a literal translation, and try to find the best way to describe what it means in English — we’ll probably throw in a pun or two along the way. (Luckily that is not hard as they are littered with puns anyway). 🤷‍♀️


The word afbellen roughly translates to “calling it off.” It usually refers to when you cancel on a friend last-minute, often because you would rather be in bed watching Netflix alone. 🛋

But, it can also refer to the act of calling people to cancel. Like when you have to call your Oma and six cousins to cancel that kaasstroopwafel (get-together) you had planned with your family. So you can say “Ik ben de hele familie aan het afbellen.”


Afblazen literally means “blow-off.” It is very similar to the above and might even be a better fit for rearranging for that solo Netflix and chill.

Plaatsvervangende schaamte

Plaatsvervangende schaamte is the feeling of shame you experience caused by someone else’s (stupid) actions.🤦‍♂️ It’s that feeling you get when you see your President making a fool of himself in a press conference (a hypothetical situation of course).

When digging through the possible meaning of these words I found the term “vicarious shame” which is an interesting way of putting it.


“Leedvermaak” is the act of enjoying some else’s misfortune. 😈 You have probably heard of the infamous German version of the phrase — “schadenfreude”. This idea may be applicable to your feelings about a few political figures (not naming any so don’t “@” me)


This word is literally translated as “out-sicking” — meaning when you are sick, you let the illness take its course as you get some rest until it is over.🌡

Make sure not to mix it up with “zieken” — which means teasing somebody. That can lead to an awkward conversation if you are calling in sick at work.

If you want to hear it from a real Dutchie, Elisette puts it way better than I could. 😉


The word is derived from “bouw-vakantie” which means build holiday. It’s when nearly all the construction work is halted in order for the construction workers to go on holiday. The first Saturday of the “bouwvak” is “Zwarte Zaterdag” — when the roads to France are all choked up with holiday-going Dutchies in their caravans.

Bouwvak has not so much to do with Bouwvakkersdecolleté (Builder’s bum), but for obvious reasons, it’s wise not to mix these two up.


Uitwaaien means “blowing out” — but it has nothing to do with that semi-legal herb. You could take a joint to the beach when you’re going for “uitwaaien“, but it simply means going for a walk and getting some air (preferably at a windy beach).

Who said it’s limited to humans? Image: Free-Photos/Pixabay.


There have got to be more words for “uitbuiken'” in other languages, help me out, folks! It literally translates to “belly-ing out” and means letting the food settle after a nice meal. It’s shorthand for nurturing a food baby. 😋🥪


The word uitbuiken is not to be confused with natafelen, which is more focused on the gezelligheid (cosiness) of sitting with friends or family at a table after a meal, drinking a bit, and having some fun. 🍻


Voorpret = pre-fun. Voorpret is about enjoying an event or something before happens. You typically experience it before weddings, parties, and holidays. What’s the proper English term? Excitement, perhaps? “looking forward to it”? 🥳

Both don’t quite cover it, think about it as the fun you’re having when reading an article on Rotterdam’s architecture before the visit to the town itself.


Together with lekker, the two words are the most used examples of untranslatable words of Dutch. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to be trapped in a Dutch circle of death, you will have heard this phrase used many times.

As you should know after spending more than seven minutes at any Dutch gathering, the word gezellig can be used in so many ways. “Echt gezellig”; lying about how “gezellig it was with my mother in law”; or a sarcastic “GEZELLIG HOOR” when your cousin is fighting with your racist aunt in a discussion about Zwarte Piet.

READ MORE | Dutch swear words: the guide to insults and cursing in the Netherlands

Now that you’ve gotten the hang of those untranslatables, you can go ahead and add them to your growing list of Dutch vocab and use them almost exclusively for the next few days. 😉

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Feature Image: na4ev/Pixabay

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2018, and was fully updated in September 2021 for your reading pleasure.

Abuzer van Leeuwen 🇳🇱http://www.abuzervanleeuwen.nl
Founded DutchReview. Rotterdammer living in Leiden. Politics, innovation and epic food-reviews are his thing. Interested in doing anything with DutchReview? Contact him at abuzer[at]dutchreview.com

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  1. Hi you guys & girls,

    Great article, let me suggest another one….

    Bit more down to Earth and highly amazing the seafaring English never got around to developing this word….

    “Varen”as in bootje varen not “fern” doesn’t seem to have an English equivalent.

    Seafaring comes close, but I never heard faring being used, it’s always sailing or steaming. Both of which refer to the method of propulsion not to the actual activity of moving a boat or ship through the water…..

    Or am I missing something?

      • When we start to talk dutch we are using so many expressions out of the seaman’s language that we can not really avoid it .
        Van wanten weten
        Boven water blijven
        Ten tij en ten ontij
        In veilige haven zijn
        De wind in de zeilen hebben
        In t water vallen
        Je schepen verbranden enz enz enz All these are just normal daily language expressions ,used by everybody ,even people that have never put a foot in salt water ..(could be difficult to find among the dutch )
        Ok ,goede vaart !

  2. Plaatsvervangende schaamte may not be translatable to english, but it is in spanish: vergüenza ajena. lovely concept


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