Looking for nails at low tide

Spijkers op laag water zoeken .

(= opmerkingen over kleine en onbeduidende zaken)

(= comments on small and insignificant matters)

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’.


adjective disapproving

Giving too much attention to formal rules or small details

They were being unnecessarily pedantic by insisting that Berry himself, and not his wife, should have made the announcement.


adjective UK

Intelligent, often in a way that is too serious

He was a thin, donnish-looking man in a tweed jacket and sandals.

Being pedantic about small details. English Equivalent: “Nitpicking.”
Belerend zijn over kleine details. Engels equivalent: “Nitpicking.”



Informal disapproving

Giving too much attention to details that are not important, especially as a way of criticizing

If you spent less time nitpicking, you’d get more work done.

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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.”

“Looking for nails at low tide” is a phrase that can have various interpretations depending on the context in which it is used. Here are some possible key points that could be associated with this phrase:

  1. Opportunity during challenging times: “Looking for nails at low tide” can imply that during difficult or challenging situations (represented by low tide), one can find opportunities (represented by nails) that may not be apparent at first glance. It may suggest that in adversity, one should look for hidden or overlooked possibilities to overcome obstacles or achieve their goals.

  2. Resourcefulness and creativity: The phrase can also emphasize the importance of being resourceful and creative in problem-solving. During low tide, when the tide is farthest from the shore, one may need to search diligently and creatively to find nails, which could symbolize solutions or resources that may not be readily available or obvious.

  3. Patience and persistence: Searching for nails at low tide can be time-consuming and require patience and persistence. It may suggest the need to persevere and not give up easily when faced with challenges or setbacks, as the desired outcome or solution may take time and effort to uncover.

  4. Value in unlikely places: “Looking for nails at low tide” may also highlight the value of exploring unconventional or unexpected places to find what one needs. It can encourage thinking outside the box and being open to exploring different avenues or perspectives in order to achieve a goal or solve a problem.

  5. Timing and timing: The phrase “low tide” suggests a particular time or condition, which could represent a fleeting or temporary opportunity. It may emphasize the importance of being aware of timing and taking advantage of favorable circumstances when they arise, as they may not last indefinitely.

Overall, “Looking for nails at low tide” can convey messages of opportunity, resourcefulness, persistence, open-mindedness, and timing in the face of challenges or adversity. The interpretation and key points may vary depending on the context in which the phrase is used.

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16 mrt. 2011

A street garbage collector picks up food from people’s tables.
A presentation of JustForLaughsTV, the official Just For Laughs Gags YouTube channel. Home of the funniest, greatest, most amazing, most hilarious, win filled, comedy galore, hidden camera pranks in the world!

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