Spijkers op laag water zoeken .
(= opmerkingen over kleine en onbeduidende zaken)
Literal translation: “Looking for nails at low tide.”
Meaning: Being pedantic about small details.
English Equivalent: “Nitpicking.”
The Dutch saying “Looking for nails at low tide” is appropriate for a person who is “looking for trouble”, a bit of a whiner. He or she makes remarks about small and insignificant matters and makes it seem as if they are very important.
What is the origin of this expression?
The best known refers to shipbuilding. The well-known linguist F.A. Stoett reports in his 1925 book of proverbs that shipyard staff sometimes went out to look for nails that had fallen into the water during carpentry.
In those days nails were valuable, but finding them was apparently not always easy, so that the expression ‘looking for nails’ took on the general meaning of ‘looking for trifles which are almost impossible to find’.
However, there is another explanation for the origin of the expression, also originating from shipbuilding. Some repairs were better carried out with screws than with nails. This is because the latter can loosen or give way more easily under stress. Taalgenootschap OnzeTaal:
“If, after repairing his ship, a skipper wanted to check whether the repair had been done with screws and not with nails, he would let the ship run dry in order to see. Finding nails in low water would then go back to this check: looking for the minute difference between a nail head and a propeller head.”
16 mrt. 2011