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Terms using Dutch

Q From Robert Legleitner, Kentucky: Recently on a writing forum I visit, quite a discussion erupted about the term Dutch as in Dutch treat and Dutch uncle. Some writers, fearing criticism and acutely conscious of political correctness, were afraid to use them as being pejorative. Where do we get these terms?

A Dutch readers should perhaps look away ...

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch and British were enemies. Both wanted maritime superiority for economic reasons, especially control of the sea routes from the rich spice islands of the East Indies. The two countries fought three wars at sea between the years 1652 and 1674. At the lowest point of the struggle, in May 1667, the Dutch sailed up the Medway, sank a lot of ships, and blockaded the Thames. The Dutch were powerful, they were the enemy, they were the bad guys, and their name was taken in vain at every opportunity.

The stereotype of the Dutchman among the English at this period was somebody stolid, miserly, and bad-tempered, and these associations, especially the stinginess, were linked to several phrases. Only a small number of them are actually recorded in print from the time of the Dutch wars, most being of eighteenth century provenance or later. But there’s nothing so long-lasting as traditional enmity; later phrases borrowed the ideas from earlier ones, and in any case many are certainly older than their date of first recording.

Examples from the time of the Dutch wars include Dutch reckoning, a bill that is presented without any details, and which only gets bigger if you question it, and a Dutch widow, a prostitute. In the same spirit, but recorded later, are Dutch courage, temporary bravery induced by alcohol; Dutch metal, an alloy of copper and zinc used as a substitute for gold foil; Dutch comfort or Dutch consolation, in which somebody might say “thank God it is no worse!”; Dutch concert, in which each musician plays a different tune; and Dutch uncle, someone who criticises or rebukes you with the frankness of a relative.

However, a Dutch auction is strictly not a member of this set, since it refers to a real practice, still used today for example in the Netherlands to sell flowers and other produce. Instead of starting low and going higher, the auction starts with a high price and reduces it. The first dealer to bid gets the lot at the current price. And going Dutch, one in which those invited pay for themselves, appeared in the US only in the late nineteenth century and has a different origin.

But otherwise, you get the idea. Yes, they are pejorative. Using them requires thoughtful consideration of the offence that might possibly be given. However, some are now so embedded in the language that direct associations with the Dutch or the Netherlands have largely been lost — Dutch uncle, for example.

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Page created 21 Oct 2000; Last updated 14 Jul 2012