Er valt geen peil op te trekken

there is no telling/knowing what will happen
[Dutch phrase of the week]
[er valt geen peil op te trek-ken] 

Contrary to what most Dutch people think, this phrase has nothing to do with a ‘pijl’ (arrow) or ‘to pull’ (which can be a translation of ‘trekken’). The expression stems from the shipping trade where a ‘peil’ is a known fixed point (or mark) that one can use to determine location and determine the course.

You can also say “daar valt geen peil op te trekken” or use the phrase for people, e.g. “op hem valt geen peil te trekken”: he is unpredictable.

“Waarom beleg je je geld niet in aandelen?” – “Ik weet niet hoor… er valt totaal geen peil te trekken op die aandelenkoersen…” 
(“Why don’t you invest (your money) in shares?” – “I’m not so sure… the share prices are highly unpredictable…”)

“Er valt op haar geen peil te trekken!” – “Dat is nog mild uitgedrukt; ze is een ongeleid projectiel!” 
(“There’s no telling what she will do next!” – “That’s putting it mildly; she’s (like) an unguided missile!”)

“Maar op welke partij de kiezer uiteindelijk zal stemmen, daar valt nu nog geen peil op te trekken…” 
(“But which parties will eventually get the electorate’s vote, that is unpredictable for now…” Lit. “But on which party the voter will vote…”)

“Hoe duur is een vliegticket naar Orlando?” – “Ik weet het niet, er valt geen peil te trekken op die ticketprijzen… Wanneer wil je gaan?” 
(“How expensive is a plane ticket to Orlando?” – “I don’t know, ticket prices are quite unpredictable… When do you plan on going?”)

Related words:
– Peil: level, mark, gauge [noun] [het peil, de peilen].
– Peilen: to sound, to gauge, to assess, to take bearings [verb] [peilde, gepeild].
– Onvoorspelbaar: unpredictable [adjective].
Voorspellen: to predict [verb] [voorspelde, voorspeld].

– “Ik heb het toch voorspeld dat er op hem geen peil te trekken valt?!”
(“I told you so, there’s no telling what he will do!” Lit. “Didn’t I predict …”)

– Raden: to guess [verb] [raadde/ried, geraden].
– Gissen: to guess (at), to surmize [verb] [giste, gegist].

9 thoughts on “Er valt geen peil op te trekken

  1. Is the verb ‘optrekken’ or is the expression “er valt geen peil te trekken op iemand/iets”, as the examples suggest?

    • It is as the examples suggest 🙂
      The verb is ‘trekken’ with preposition ‘op’. There is also a verb ‘optrekken’ which is indeed confusing (but also what makes Dutch fun 😉 )

      • Thanks Sanders. ‘Op te trekken’ makes me directly think of optrekken as a separable verb (scheidbaar werkwoord)… wouldn’t it be clearer to reformulate the saying in ‘Er valt geen peil op iemand/iets te trekken’? Sorry voor het etteren hoor 😉

        • You could formulate it that way, however when one uses the saying in its independent form, for example as part of a discussion in which it is clear what you refer to, one would say: “Er/daar valt geen peil op te trekken”.
          If you want to mention the topic you can say both:
          – Er valt geen peil te trekken op [topic]; or
          – Er valt op [topic] geen peil te trekken.
          I would say that the first is more common.

          In this saying ‘op’ is a preposition. It takes some experience to recognize the usage. An example of splitting up the verb ‘optrekken’ in the meaning of ‘spending time with somebody’ is:
          – Ik heb geen zin meer om met hem op te trekken.

  2. NB Readers may also look up the previous entry Zee for a similar usage of peil (NAP, Normaal Amsterdams Peil – the chart datum for ground and water levels in the Netherlands)

  3. Er valt geen peil op me te trekken: gewoon etteren! 😉

    About Raden: to guess [verb] [raadde/ried, geraden]…

    Do you use raadde and ried in the past tense indifferently? For example I have seen that raden can mean to guess as well as to advise (…an interesting pair…). Is there some meaning/usage for which you use either past tense?
    Sometimes this is the case… the one who puzzled me a lot for a while was
    a) wassen, wies, gewassen (to grow, a strong verb)
    b) wassen, waste, gewast (to cover with wax, a weak verb)
    c) wassen, waste, gewassen (to wash, a mixed verb)

    What do you advise me? Don’t guess 😉

    • I have not found an indication that either form is reserved for one of the meanings only. From my experience I would say that ‘raadde’ is much more common.
      About your examples on ‘wassen’; the second one I only know in the form ‘waxen’ (waxte, gewaxt).
      The first example is interesting, not many people realize that ‘wassen’ can also have the meaning of ‘to grow’. Examples are:
      – Gewas: vegetation;
      – Volwassen: adult;
      – Wassend water: rising water. And not ‘washing water’. Although it could also have that meaning 🙂

        • Aha, I see what you mean. There is also a difference between ‘was’ en ‘wax’ by the way. But I think that in case of ‘to cover with wax’ it is more common to say ‘[iets] in de was zetten’ than ‘[iets] wassen’ because in case of the latter it can also mean ‘to wash something’.

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