Today for our “Word of the Week” feature we draw on the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris, a fascinating book of “more than 3,000 colorful, interesting and little-known stories about the origins of everyday words and expressions, presented with wit and authority”. Strikingly, I discovered an entry that perked up my Dutch antennae – something about “Dutch courage, Dutch treat, in Dutch, etc.” And instead of being filled with pride at my Dutch heritage, I was provoked to Dutch anger and stubbornness. It seems the English and Dutch were not always so friendly, and the English made up a few expressions to convey their sentiments. Ready for a little history and word history involving the Dutch?
Here’s the entry:
Probably no nationality has come in for so consistent a torrent of verbal abuse from the English as their neighbors across the channel, the Dutch. Dutch courage – the kind of courage that comes out of a bottle – is surely an unflattering phrase. When you’re invited to a Dutch treat or a Dutch luncheon, the host expects each guest to pay his own way. Double Dutch is a kind of talk deliberately intended to deceive the listener. And to do the Dutch is to commit suicide.
In these few phrases – and there are dozens more – the English have implied that the Dutch are cowardly, niggardly and deceitful. Yet the rest of the world sees Holland and its people as a land of tulips, windmills, sunny-faced skaters and brave fellows tending the dikes (Thank you, now you are talking real Dutch! -cjt). Why should the British take such a contrary view?
It was not always thus. Until well after Shakespeare’s time, the Dutch were usually well regarded in all literary references by British authors. But during the seventeenth century the two nations became rivals in international commerce. For awhile, at least, the Dutch colonial empire loomed as a real challenge to Britain’s (Read: the Dutch dominated the seas! – cjt). So the disrespectful references began. One of the earliest – a reference to Dutch courage – was penned by the poet Edmund Waller in 1665:
The Dutch their wine and all their brandy lose,
Disarmed of that from which their courage grows.
Today, of course, Great Britain and the Netherlands have lived in peace and fellowship for many years. But the damage done by the derogatory phrases created in a time of wars and rivalry remains. To this day one hears of Dutch reckoning (guesswork), Dutch defense (retreat or surrender), and a pigheaded or stubborn man is one whose Dutch is up. It surely does beat the Dutch! (p.120)