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shameless pleading

Dutch, Do the

Some slurs are, evidently, eternal.

Dear Word Detective:  In a mystery novel (titled “The Dutch”), author Les Roberts says the phrase “doing the Dutch” is “street language” for committing suicide.  True?  How did it come to be? — Kathryn Little.

Reading novels again, are we?  That’s increasingly a girl thing, it seems.  There’s an interesting profile in a recent New Yorker magazine of the British novelist Ian McEwan.  In it McEwan tells of the time he and his son took thirty novels, culled from his home library, to a London park and tried to give them to passersby.  According to McEwan, “[E]very young woman we approached . . . was eager and grateful to take a book,” but the men “… could not be persuaded.”  McEwan concluded that “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”  Maybe the solution is to serialize novels on beer cans.

Meanwhile, back at your question, the answer is yes, “doing the Dutch” is indeed slang for suicide, also known as “the Dutch act,” which is obviously unfair to the Dutch.  If, as a nation, the Dutch really had an extraordinary predilection for suicide, the Netherlands wouldn’t be nearly so crowded.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of anti-Dutch slurs in the English language.

A survey of the wide range of pejorative terms in English that include the word “Dutch” would lead one to conclude that there is scarcely an unpleasant aspect of human existence that has not been unfairly ascribed to the Dutch by English-speaking people.  Most of these terms are relics of the fierce competition between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century, when the countries were establishing rival global empires.  According to Hugh Rawson, who devotes almost three pages of his wonderful book “Wicked Words” (Crown, 1989) to the linguistic products of anti-Dutch fervor in the Britain of that period, almost anything viewed as “inferior,” “abnormal” or “foreign” was labeled “Dutch.”  Many of these locutions lasted well past the period of  hostility between the two nations, and some are still heard today.

“Dutch courage,” for example, is false bravado, often fortified by large amounts of alcohol.  A “Dutch treat” is a dinner or similar occasion where no one is “treated” and everyone pays his or her own way.  “Dutch nightingale” was, at one time, mocking slang for a frog.  To “speak Dutch” was to speak gibberish or nonsense, and something completely incomprehensible was described as “double-Dutch.”  (“Double Dutch” jump rope is so-called because it is difficult and confusing, requiring hopping through two jump ropes twirling in opposite directions like an eggbeater.)   A “Dutch defense” was a sham defense to mask a retreat, and to “do a Dutch” meant to run away as well as to commit suicide.  To “take Dutch leave” was to desert, and today we still describe someone in trouble as being “in Dutch.”

Interestingly, some of these unpleasant creations crossed the Atlantic and were used in America, not because there was much Dutch presence here (apart from in early New York City), but because German immigrants to America were known as “Dutch” due to a common misunderstanding of “Deutsch” (meaning “German” in German) as meaning “Dutch.”  To this day the descendants of German immigrants in Pennsylvania are known as “the Pennsylvania Dutch.”

5 comments to Dutch, Do the

  • I’ve never heard of “Dutch courage”, but I have heard of “Irish courage”, to be the result of drinking. Which didn’t surprise me since there are a lot of alcohol-related terms attributed to the Irish.

  • Sitting Duck

    Another of those Dutch terms heard under another nationality would be taking Dutch leave, which I’ve always heard of as taking French leave.

    This particular column brought to mind The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. You may recall in that one that Bertie is tasked with going to an antiques shop to have a look at a silver cream jug in the shape of a cow his Uncle Tom had reserved and make disparaging remarks about it (to shame the proprietor into lowering the price). One of the things he was instructed to do was to imply that the creamer was modern Dutch. Before having read this column, I had assumed that the Netherlands had a notoriety for producing cheap replicas. Anyone know which interpretation would be correct?

  • Armine

    I have come across the term “to take English leave” meaning to leave a party without drawing attention to one’s person. I remember the term “English leave” to imply politeness on the part of the person who leaves, as if he had rather he did not disturb the rest of the company. Do you think my understanding correct?

  • Diane

    Isn’t there a term Dutch uncle?

    Re Wooster, I wonder if the significant word about deriding the pitcher is “modern”, not Dutch, since thus it was not an antique.

  • I have heard the phrase “dutch miracle” does anyone know what this means?

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