Going Dutch

Have you ever noticed how we use Dutch ironically to describe things we don’t like or trust? It is often used humorously to indicate the opposite sense of something, for instance:

  • Going Dutch means people pay for themselves rather than being generous;
  • Speaking double Dutch means what you are saying is incomprehensible;
  • A Dutch treat, is something you pay for yourself;
  • Dutch courage is bravery induced by high levels of alcohol; and
  • a Dutch uncle is someone not related to you who talks to you sternly as if he is your relative

(There are also quite a few very vulgar ones, which I won’t include).

Dutch stereotype

Even though it is often used in humour there can be an unpleasant stereotype implied in the older phrases that use it.  Some can be quite derogatory and characterise Holland people as being mean-spirited, miserly, cold and overly stern. Also they are portrayed as having too great a fondness for beer, having a poor national cuisine and having no regard for quality.

This derogatory use by the English-speaking world eventually drove the Netherlands Government in 1934 to take action. They instructed their officials to stop using the term. Instead, they were to employ the official term, The Netherlands, thus confusing school children forever. Recently they even dumped Holland.

Origins (Holland and The Netherlands)

Dutch was first used to describe the languages of Northern Europe. It is a derivative of Middle Dutch duutsch, from Old High German duit-isc (corresponding to Old English, þeodisc). It means belonging to the people—that is, being a native language (as opposed to official languages such as Latin). In English, it became used more narrowly to describe the people of the Netherlands when The Netherlands became an independent state in the 17th century.

Holland derives from Old Dutch holt lant, meaning wood land referring to the central districts of the country. Northern Europe is sometimes divided into the high countries (Germany, Austria, etc) and Low Countries (Belgium, Flanders in France, and Netherlands). Netherlands is based on Old English niþera/neoþera meaning down, downwards, below, beneath with the equivalent in Dutch being Nederland, literally lower-land.

Why do we use Dutch to mean contrary

So why in particular do we use it when the English-speaking world has no modern animosity with people from The Netherlands. The discord supposedly relates to Britain and Holland’s 17th century maritime and military rivalry (according to academic sources). It was from this time that Dutch supposedly picked up its ironic meaning, for instance, Dutch nightingale has been used to describe frogs since 1769. However its derogatory use dates back to at least the early 16th century when Shakespeare pokes fun at them (in Edward III):

Among those ever-bibbing Epicures,
Those frothy Dutch men, puft with double beer,
That drink and swill in every place they come …

American sources suggest the derogatory use in the US might be a confusion with Deutsch, used to refer to German immigrants. This confusion is not surprising as US immigrants from The Netherlands described themselves as Low Dutch, as opposed to High Dutch, which were the Germans.

In the Netherlands people use a similar word, Duits (formerly duitsch), to refer to Germans. The Germans occupied Holland during WWII (and the British and US took heavily casualties liberating them) so even the Netherland’s Dutch aren’t fond of the German Duits.