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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Dutch (as nickname)

Maximum Maru would be awesome.

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 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.

Hat Trick

Forget it Jake, it’s cricket.

Dear Word Detective: I have been watching the Olympics up here in Canada, and I keep hearing about “hat tricks.” One of the Canadian women scored three goals in an important soccer match — hat trick. Another, more prominent, athlete won three gold medals — again a hat trick. So I understand that it refers to an individual doing three of something. But what does this have to do with hats? — Harold Russell.

Um, is it safe? Is it safe? I know I sound like the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, but I’ve been hiding from the Olympics for, gosh, must be a couple of months now. I haven’t looked at the TV news or most of the internet at all, but the few headlines that managed to sneak through my blindfold (metaphorical, of course) tended to indicate that the Olympics had taken up permanent residence, like the second cousin who crashes on your couch for a few weeks in July and is somehow still there on New Year’s Eve. So is it over? What year is it?

Speaking of years, I just checked and it turns out that the last time I answered a question about “hat trick” was way back in 1997, which was before Facebook or Twitter or any of the other things I wish it were still before so we could stop them. The slightly mortifying aspect of the fifteen years since I wrote that column is that I still don’t entirely understand the particulars of the term’s origins. I know where and when it first appeared, but the exact situation it described remains as opaque to me today as it was then. You’ll understand in a moment.

“Hat trick” is a term used in sports to describe a single player or athlete scoring three goals (or whatever) in one game or match. So if I were to score three goals in quick succession in a hockey game (after first learning to skate, in my case), that would be hailed by the gang in the broadcast booth as a “hat trick.” The term is also used by extension for a threefold success in nearly any other activity, from selling three used cars in one afternoon to getting yourself arrested three times in a row for mopery in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is very strict about mopery. Don’t ask.

The term “hat trick” first appeared in Britain, in the late 19th century, and it comes from the game of cricket, which is where things get a little bit sticky, explanation-wise, because I have never understood cricket. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a “hat trick” means “The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: originally considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.” I suppose a really good player would have had to rent a room to store all those nifty hats; that’s probably why they eventually switched to rewarding athletic success with buckets of money.

“Hat tricks” are noted in other sports as well, most notably horse racing, where a “hat trick” consists of a single jockey winning three races in one day. In hockey, there are two kinds of “hat tricks,” the simple sort being one player scoring three goals in one game. When a hockey player scores three goals in succession with no other scores interrupting, it’s called a “natural hat trick.” There’s also a “hat trick” in baseball, which consists of a player hitting a single, a double, a triple and a home run all in one game. This sort of hat trick is, unsurprisingly, quite rare, so it would be slightly tacky on such an occasion to point out that “hat trick” in this sense describes four, not three, events.

I should probably note, just for the record, that “hat trick” can also mean, according to the OED, “Any trick with a hat, e.g., one performed by a conjurer.” I’m hoping there’s a special term for a magician who manages to produce three rabbits from the same hat. On such an occasion, of course, a new hat would probably be very welcome.

Decent

Eek.

Dear Word Detective: Well, we all know what the question “Are you decent?” means, but how and when did it come to be that very specific question referring to one’s state of (un)dress? –  Your Humble Reader, Nick.

Mmm, humble. That’s the spirit. “Are you decent?” is an interesting idiom in part because it doesn’t seem like an idiom, which is a fixed phrase that has more meaning (or a different meaning) than the literal sum of its words (e.g., “piece of cake” meaning “something easily done”). “Are you decent?” seems to be the most basic of simple, factual questions, on a par with “Are you married?” or “Is that your dog driving my car?” But what it really means, as an idiom, is “Are the parts of your body considered not fit for public viewing according to societal norms in this particular historical period sufficiently obscured so as not to cause either of us embarrassment and/or lasting mortification?”

“Decent,” of course, is one of more popular English adjectives (certainly more popular than “crepuscular,” which means “dim, indistinct, resembling twilight” and is one of my favorite words). English adopted “decent” in the 16th century from the French word “decent,” which was based on the Latin “decentem” (“fitting, appropriate, proper”), which was a form of “decere,” meaning “to be proper or seemly.”

The initial meaning of “decent” in English concerned the tenets of social respectability at the time; what was “decent” was what was appropriate to one’s rank or station and socially fitting given the facts of a situation (“The funerall of the Bish[op] of Hereford …was a decent solemnity..,” circa 1684). We still use this “appropriate” or “seemly” sense when we speak of waiting a “decent” time before criticizing someone who has died or spending a “decent” amount of time on social obligations (“After a decent Time spent in the Father’s House, the Bridegroom went to prepare his Seat for her Reception,” 1710).

By the 17th century, “decent” had broadened a bit to also mean “in good taste,” “sufficient” (“decent salary”) and even “handsome or attractive,” especially as applied to dwellings (“He had Five or Six Apartments in his House …Two of them were very large and decent,” Daniel Defoe, 1725).

Bubbling along under the “socially appropriate” usage of “decent” all this time had, however, been a different use of “decent” in a “personal morality” sense, specifically to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “In accordance with or satisfying the general standard of propriety or good taste, in conduct, speech, or action; especially conformable to or satisfying the recognized standard of modesty or delicacy; free from obscenity.” Yes, folks, we’re entering the zone of foul-mouthed nekkid people here. This is the sense of “decent” invoked by centuries of fervid campaigns against obscenity, pornography and other sorts of “indecency,” from which a pass can be earned only by clinical detachment, such as that of an anthropologist encountering people safely far away (“The Wa-Caga cannot be accused of indecency, for they make no effort to be decent, but walk about as Nature made them,”  H. H. Johnston, Kilimanjaro Expedition, 1886). Today cable TV and the internet are, of course, full of people wandering around “as Nature made them” (albeit often with unnatural enhancement), so “decency” in this sense has lost a bit of its oomph in many quarters, though it still gets votes in the boonies.

All of which brings us back to “Are you decent?” as a pause-at-the-door formality. Interestingly, the phrase seems to have originated as a jocular usage among theater performers, as explained in a 1949 book by Ruth Harvey called “Curtain Time”: “Sometimes, if she knew one of the actors or actresses, she would knock at a door and call ‘Are you decent?’  (That old theatrical phrase startled people who didn’t belong to the theatre, but it simply meant ‘Are you dressed?’).” Given that actors would be well aware that government agencies as well as self-appointed Decency Cops were constantly monitoring stage productions for “indecency” during most of the 20th century, it’s likely that the “decent” in the phrase was a joking reference to the standards of propriety applied to performers on stage, and not just a random synonym for “dressed.”