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Netherlandish Proverbs (1559) (wikipedia.org)
166 points by benbreen on Feb 22, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 32 comments

Small Dutch connotation: Dutch proverbs is something children are taught in primary school, and we get saddled with a pretty large amount of them, but don't expect a Dutch person to ever say "ah well, the herring hangs by his own gills". At least I've never heard anyone say that. Even though this painting (and others) are used for teaching proverbs.

Many of these proverbs are rather archaic, and I suspect a good bunch of them to have never been in popular use at all (some of them are really far fetched/oddly specific).

Dutch speakers not proficient at English often try to translate Dutch proverbs literally into English, often with hilarious results. It's a good reminder of why it's so hard to have computers translate language. Even if you know your grammar perfectly, and you know the meaning of every word, you can still utterly fail to understand the meaning of a sentence.

"Man, my boss is really making me look for nails at low water"

Said the Dutch, meaning to say that his boss is making him do annoying work with apparent low value. It stems from back when nails were relatively precious, and used in shipbuilding. Bosses would make their shipbuilders wait for ebb and then have them seek for the nails they dropped while working on the ships.

Are you stabbing the dragon with our language? Quite a lot of proverbs are still used where I work and sometimes during a presentation it leads to strange remarks, only funny to the dutch people. Such a a person then falls through the basket as a true dutchman, the ape comes out of the sleeve so to say. The presenter then often laughs like a farmer with a tooth ache. But who cares, who laughs the last, laughs the best.

Haven't you ever been sent from the closet to the wall? Life doesn't go over roses.

Besides van Gaal being famous for translating the rich Dutch proverbs into English/German there is some merit to the first post. I've notices since moving from Zeeland (province, sparcely populated) to the Randstad (Near The Hague, city style) some years ago, that in Zeeland we used a lot more proverbs in common speaking language than people do in the 'city'.

But that might just be me 'pulling my own plan'.

Using control F, I did not find this idiom on the Wikipedia page we are discussing. So I went looking.

I tried to google "stabbing the dragon" and initially only found an English urban dictionary entry advising me that "slaying the dragon" is an idiom for sleeping with a very unattractive women. More digging got me this reddit discussion: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/znsep/reddit_what... which suggests that it means mocking someone.

I also found this: http://speakwords.org/post/74048121/hes-stabbing-the-dragon-...

Indeed "stabbing/sticking the dragon with" means "to make fun of".

This all reminds me of an episode of TNG where Picard has to communicate with a race that only speaks in proverbs, sentences that only make sense when you know their historical context or metaphors (http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Tamarian_language).

BTW, an Austrian colleague just a couple of days ago told me (in Dutch) "Life is not a little lark." Which has no meaning at all to me but we started using it. Funny stuff :) In University we actually made a sport out of literally translating dutch proverbs which is why I "shook my original comment out of the sleeve" so quickly (Note that I didn't "suck it out of my thumb", that would mean I made it up whereas "shaking it out of the sleeve" means I came up with it without effort).

That TNG language was all metaphor if I recall. "Zinda, his face black, his eyes red!"


In Dutch it's such a common expression it doesn't even sound funny, even though it totally is.

edit: lol the article itself makes heavy use of proverbs, so it's hardly legible :P

I didn't want to wake sleeping dogs. Now I dug this hole and fell in myself and got schooled by the best horse in the stable. I guess I am really lodged in the monkey ;)

In general, a donkey does not stub itself on the same stone twice so you got that going for you...

My personal favorite : "That's the earth of the beast". In dutch it's "Aard van het beestje" which loosely translates to "it's in its/their nature". During a large conference in Cannes, France I heard a Dutch researcher say it during his presentation with a room full of puzzled faces as a result.

There is an imitation[0] of this idea in which many Cantonese proverbs are illustrated.


When that was on the frontpage I posted a link in the comments to the Bruegel painting :P

Came here to post this one as well!

This painting is fantastic, and it's great to see it unpacked on Wikipedia.

I made an app to learn more about art[1], and from looking at old works it's clear many of our modern concerns are timeless--hunger, greed, jealousy, human beauty, ecstasy, joy, desire for wealth. It's both reassuring and humbling.

A vaguely similar work is The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch[2]. It is, depending on interpretation, either a warning of human temptations, or detailing a sort of sixteenth-century Burning Man (paradise lost).

1. http://artfulmac.com

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights

We need a visual representation of this for programming lore / systems concepts :) Any artists want to collaborate? Perhaps the title could be 'Visual Arts', and the subtitle 'a language that was invented first and then people came around to try to get semantics' (referencing Leslie Lamport on UML)

9 coders = Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later. Nine women can't make a baby in one month.

figure dreaming of a hall of mirrors = Design up front for reuse is, in essence, premature optimization.

poster of darwin image with man deevolving to a computer = Software Architecture Paradox #3: Evolution impedes survival. We design a software system that can evolve, but in doing so hasten its death.

gps unit with a stack overflow error = All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection, except of course for the problem of too many indirections.

mirror being installed while a surveyor surveys = One person's constant is another person's variable.

light-projected space invaders down the kryptos sculpture = One person's data is another person's program.

person in 'chief architect' office atop the ivory tower with completed survey papers, telephones, frazzled with pages of a destroyed calendar thrown across the room and playing oldschool pitfall type game (possibly with a waterfall feature in the room or out the window, and a UML book on the shelf) = Any attempt to formulate all possible requirements at the start of a project will fail and would cause considerable delays.

house being brick-layed without a clear plan by rugby players = To the extent that [Agile software development] is [an excuse for not thinking], it's a bad thing.

burning google balloon floating in the clouds = reference to failed google project

wheel as the logo atop the ivory tower = A general-purpose product is harder to design well than a special-purpose one.

someone looking at an empty parking space and buying a car = Generalized form of Parkinson's Law: The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource. The reverse is not true.

... etc. quotes taken from my fortune clone @ https://github.com/globalcitizen/taoup

Somebody removing a moth from between the contacts of a relay.

Two confused looking dudes trying to label the pickets on a picket fence, one starting from 0 and the other older dude starting from 1, and getting into a fistfight over who is correct, of course.

ACID compliance, the "other" WIMP (weakly interacting massive program). A fine arts painting representation of Codd Normal Forms, is that genius or insanity?

systemd, well, that'll be interesting one way or the other. Hopefully not as boring as providing a standard internet shock pix/video and slapping systemd as the title.

Another fun one would be humanoid figures as parodies of languages or OS or software development patterns and the equally important software development ANTI patterns. Human forms representing paradigms like static / dynamic types or software paradigms in greco roman diety form "Aphrodite the magnificent goddess of functional programming" vs "Zeus the imperative".

The intersection of fine-ish art and tech is remarkably empty and fertile ground.

I would pay some money for a painting / poster / print in the Hieronymus Bosch style on programming. Probably inspired by "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" or "The Garden of Earthly Delights". I suppose the right side of "Garden" is a pretty good representation of Java programming.

ACID is an interesting meme ... maybe a zany ACID dealer that looks like the Oracle from the matrix? :)

Human static form = those people who pose still as statues

Human dynamic form = contortionist

A row of warehouses of differing sizes/styles could represent language or OS-specific packaging systems.

A garage maker-space of course...

Fantastic painting.

There are however some mistakes in the explanation of the proverbs. "To bell the cat" does not mean "To carry out a dangerous or impractical plan". It means: "To do something dangerous that benefits many people". If you know Dutch, you can look it up here: https://onzetaal.nl/taaladvies/advies/de-kat-de-bel-aanbinde...

I also noticed this. An example of an application of this saying would be a whistleblower.

Bruegel’s paintings are magnificent. See also The Fight Between Carnival and Lent¹ and Children's Games².

1. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e5/Pieter_B...

2. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1a/Pieter_B...

BBC Radio 4's fantastic "In Our Time" podcast had an episode on Bruegel just a few weeks ago. IIRC, it was more about a different but somewhat similar painting of his, but I believe there was at least a little discussion of this work as well. http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/iot (search for "Bruegel")

"To be armed to the teeth"

I wonder about the diffusion of things like this. Obviously, it exists in English. Italian too: "armato fino ai denti".

Are they very old and have found there way into many languages, or something more recent that spreads quickly? Do people study this stuff? I would think they must, somewhere.

I study this stuff, after a fashion! (Historian of globalization and intellectual exchanges). I would conjecture that if something exists in multiple European languages prior to, say, the 17th century (the advent of cheap mass market publications) it probably has a Greco-Roman or Biblical origin. Quite often you can narrow the guess to Horace or Virgil, since medieval and early modern writers apparently never got tired of quoting those two epigrammatically.

Searching for "origin of armed to the teeth" yields a lot of just so stories about how it comes from the great age of piracy or is a reference to a Scottish armory but I doubt both given the fact that we know it was a thing in the 1550s Low Countries. I wouldn't be surprised if there was at least a medieval origin for it given that.

German as well: "bis an die Zähne bewaffnet"

In dutch as well: Tot de tanden gewapend.

I think we all took Dutch as a given, seeing as how it's the subject of the article.

In Brazil also: "armado até os dentes".

Very cool. There's a video on the painting in the excellent Smarthistory collection:


Another reason to love Wikipedia (and maybe consider donating a little).

Michael Frayn's novel "Headlong" is about the discovery of what might be a lost Bruegels, and stands as an interesting account of how art historians think: http://www.amazon.com/Headlong-Michael-Frayn-ebook/dp/B002RI...

As a layperson in art history I found it a fascinating look into a quite different approach to analysis.

"Negligence will be rewarded with disaster"

To be able to tie even the devil to a pillow - Obstinacy overcomes everything

To bang one's head against a brick wall - To try to achieve the impossible

The dip is real

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