And don’t call me Shirley.
Dear Word Detective: You’ve covered various derogatory “Dutch” expressions (Dutch treat, Dutch courage, etc.) I recently bought a used (~1991) copy of the Elmore Leonard novel “Maximum Bob.” On the back, there is a blurb from the NYT Review of Books saying, “Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob is maximum Dutch!” Huh? Presumably, this is intended as a compliment, unlike the other “Dutch” expressions, but my wife and I cannot uncover its meaning. Even the all-knowing Google comes up empty (unless you want to count links to beauty salons and male strippers). So, can you shed any light? — Rich Simon.
Beauty salons and male strippers and Maximum Dutch, oh my. What we really need in this here language is a word for the moment when (a) your curiosity is piqued, but (b) you immediately lose any interest in the answer. It’s like those creepy stories on the front page of the New York Times every freakin’ day for the past ten years exploring all the fascinating aspects of Death and Dying for Baby Boomers. They always have intriguing headlines like “For a Flying Ecdysiast, a Final Molt,” but they all manage to swat you down with “hospice” and “palliative” by the third paragraph, and you spend the rest of the day watching Maru videos on YouTube to recover.
It’s true that I’ve explained several derogatory uses of “Dutch” over the years, almost all of them the product of intense national rivalry between the English and the Dutch when their countries were expanding their competing empires in the 17th century. Such slanders of the day as “Dutch courage,” false bravado usually fueled by alcohol, “Dutch nightingale” (a frog), “to take Dutch leave” (desert) and “to do the Dutch” (run away or commit suicide) took root so deeply in English that they’re still heard today, long after those empires crumbled. Oddly enough, these terms may now be more popular in the US, which didn’t even exist back then, than they are in Britain. That’s probably because Americans applied them to German immigrants, confusing “Dutch” with “Deutsch” (“German” in German), which is what the newcomers called themselves. This misunderstanding persists in the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” applied to communities of German, not Dutch, ancestry.
Now, as to why a presumably laudatory blurb on the jacket of an Elmore Leonard book would refer to the book as “maximum Dutch,” the answer is simple: “Dutch” turns out to be Mr. Leonard’s lifelong nickname. According to the (presumably fairly accurate, i.e., not Wikipedia) biography of Leonard posted on the FX cable channel’s web page for a show based on one of his books, “In high school a classmate gave him his nickname, ‘Dutch,’ after the Washington Senators knuckleballer, Emil ‘Dutch’ Leonard.” Who knew, right?
In adopting “Dutch” as a nickname, Elmore Leonard joined a fraternity that ranges from the famous (US President Ronald Reagan was dubbed “Dutch” by his father as a young child) to the infamous (“Dutch” Schultz (1902-1935), a notorious New York City gangster whose real name was Arthur Flegenheimer) and includes at least dozen famous athletes nicknamed “Dutch.” Just why someone is given or takes “Dutch” as a nickname seems to vary. Reagan’s father apparently thought Ronnie as an infant resembled “a fat little Dutchman” with his “Dutch boy” haircut. In other cases, it may be that old “Deutsch/Dutch” confusion cropping up if the person is of German ancestry. There also seem to be a number of cases where the nickname “Dutch” connotes courage or determination, possibly because early German immigrants were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as obstinate or strong-willed. Or maybe it all comes from the legend of that brave Dutch boy, popularized by the novel “Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates” (Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865), who plugged a hole in the dike with his finger and saved his little village.