Money in proverbs and history of our means of payment

Proverbs about money such as ‘A dime on its side’ and others reflect something of the history of a means of payment, in this case the history of money in the Netherlands. But these proverbs about our ‘medium of exchange’ also show something of how the Netherlands and the Dutch think about paying, saving, borrowing, etc.; about which norms and values play a role in how we speak, think and deal with our means of payment. Not only specifically the concept of money, but also the broader meaning behind it. Our regular expressions, proverbs and sayings with a metaphorical (not literal) meaning reveal something about finance, trade and our economy. If you do not know the meaning of a proverb, you can look it up in Koenen’s dictionary or ‘Dikke van Dale’. Or even more convenient: in a special proverb book or online!

Proverbs as an expression of the nature of the Netherlands

Proverbs show something of Holland. This applies to proverbs about our money, but also to other proverbs.

A proverb about money and history

A very clear example of a proverb that shows something of the history of our Dutch money is the proverb: it’s a coin on its side. It is interesting that such a historical proverb can again become the title of a TV program: ‘A penny on his side’ by Annemarie van Gaal and John Williams. This says something about the power and fame of proverbs.

A dime on his side

Since the introduction of the euro, this proverb runs the risk of gradually falling into disuse. Because the Netherlands no longer has a currency called a dime! For children born after the introduction of the euro, such a proverb soon no longer means anything. Unless they hear it regularly used by adults in their environment and learn it at school, with an explanation of its meaning. Meaning of the common expression ‘a dime on its side’ If you have some old coins stored in a cash box somewhere (pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, etc.), take them and take out a dime. And put that dime on its side. You will see, a dime on its side literally falls over very quickly. The proverb therefore means that something only just ends well; ‘It’s all over the place’, to put it with another expression from the shipping industry.

A proverb about money and norms and values

As mentioned, proverbs also often reflect something about our norms, values and beliefs. A good example of this is:

If you were born for a dime, you will never become a quarter: a belief

If you know this expression, this proverb, then you probably understand where I am going: The proverb if you were born for a dime, you will never become a quarter, reflects the belief that someone who is low on the social ladder will never ascend. And parallel to that, someone who is born poor will never become rich. Which immediately gives the meaning of this proverb.

If you were born for a dime, you never become a quarter: a piece of history

At the same time, this proverb also reflects something of our history. This proverb reflects a society in which it was difficult to rise, for example from street sweeper to bank manager. And as with the previous proverb, it even contains two words that will eventually – after the introduction of the euro – fall into disuse in our language and disappear from the dictionary: dime and quarter.

Proverbs containing the word ‘money’ and the concept ‘money’

Below are ten proverbs that literally contain the word money, its meaning and, if possible, some of the history and beliefs, norms and values expressed therein. By the way, you can easily make a quiz with (these) proverbs: you have the proverbs completed and/or you ask about the meaning. Elderly people who suffer from dementia as a result of Alzheimer’s disease can complete proverbs very well. Explaining is more difficult for them. You can (also) ask other adults and primary school pupils, upper secondary school pupils and secondary school pupils about the meaning.

Spending his money through it

The proverb running through his money means that someone uses up his money very quickly. There is something of disapproval in this proverb: it is wrong to waste your money. It echoes a standard that many believe fits in the Calvinist Netherlands.

Throwing money down the drain

This proverb also reflects the view that throwing money away is incorrect. This proverbial expression therefore means that a person is wasting his money. The beam here would be reminiscent of filling a rack with hay, whereby an unnecessary amount of hay and therefore unnecessary money was thrown over the beam and therefore wasted. A reminder of our agricultural society.

Money must flow

With this expression someone wants to indicate that money must be traded. Leaving money in the bank or, even worse, in a piggy bank or an old sock at home is a waste of money. You have to spend and receive money. This almost expresses the opposite mentality as in the previous two proverbs. At the same time it becomes clear that these are coins and not paper money. Otherwise the money would not be able to ‘roll’.

Money does not make you happy

With this proverb, the person in question wants to make it clear that money is not a condition for happiness in life. Other ‘things’ are more important, more valuable than money or wealth. For example health, friendship or love. Here too, a somewhat Calvinistic view of life seems to resonate.

Money is not an issue

This proverb is often used when someone really wants something. He wants to buy it no matter how much money it costs him. An expression of someone who can afford to spend a lot of money on something. A mentality that you are more likely to encounter in a wealthy person than in someone who has to save every dime.

Earn money like water

If you say that someone earns ‘like water’, then he earns a lot of money. That person also seems to live in different, less good, financial circumstances. It can be expressed admiringly, but perhaps also with some jealousy. This proverb indicates something of our geographical circumstances. The Dutch live in a landscape with a lot of water. And under weather conditions where rain flows freely. Such a proverb is unthinkable in a land of endless deserts. There, such a proverb would rather be worded differently: making money like sand!

Money sweetens labor

Someone who uses these words wants to indicate that hard work is not so bad as long as you earn enough or perhaps a lot of money from it. This is of course also a vision on work and money.

Time is money

It is quite conceivable that, for example, a businessman or businesswoman is speaking here. Someone who believes that money is lost by not using time. After all, someone who works exchanges his time for money? It is an expression that is often used in our current economy and in a society that is always rushed and busy.

He’s swimming in money

Someone who can swim in money has a lot of money. He can swim in it, as in water, as in a large swimming pool. Here too, someone else is usually speaking who believes from a third party that the person in question is rich. It evokes the image of Scrooge McDuck from the famous Donald Duck comic strip lying in a swimming pool full of money. And this proverb will not occur in a country that is plagued by severe drought.

Money does not stink

A literal translation of the Latin proverb pecunia non olet. It is used to indicate that everyone is greedy for money, regardless of whether that money is earned honestly or dishonestly. You cannot, as it were, ‘smell’ whether it is ‘dirty’ or not. The Latin proverb is said to have been first used by the Roman emperor Vespasian to justify his imposed sewer tax. Emperor Vespasian lived from 9 to 79 AD.

Look up the meaning of a proverb

If you did not grow up with proverbs, did not learn them in school, are from another country, you can look up their meaning. There are special proverb books. You can also search in more extensive dictionaries of the Dutch Language. Think of Koenen’s dictionaries or those of ‘De Dikke van Dale’, the largest dictionary of the Dutch language.


Proverbs in general reflect something of the society in which they are used. Both of the history of a society and of the views and mentality that prevail there. This also applies to proverbs about money, regardless of whether this concerns concrete money or wealth, trade, economy or property.

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