Even after living in the Netherlands for more than thirty years, I can apparently still fall into the trap of unthinkingly translating something literally from English to Dutch in a conversation. We were sitting with a small group of friends having a drink and a chat about covid, politics, restrictions and lockdowns (what else!!) and I said something about a particular argument not holding water. And in English, that’s perfectly fine. The expression has been in use since the 1600s and simply refers to a container for water that has holes in it and is therefore ineffective, useless. A similar expression is ‘a Swiss-cheese argument’ – equally ineffective because of the holes.
So far so good. Except that the conversation was in Dutch and I just slipped that idiom in there in Dutch. It wasn’t until I noticed puzzled faces all around the table that I realised there was something wrong. Had I been too emphatic? Then my Dutch friends started asking each other whether that was an existing expression in Dutch. ‘Kan een argument water houden?’ they wondered. I immediately realised that it wasn’t. But even weirder, I suddenly wondered whether it actually existed or whether I’d just made it up!
Take heart, dear reader. It does and I’m not losing my linguistic marbles just yet.