Going Dutch

Admittedly, entries in Word Stories have been sparse in the last week or so for various reasons: a hiking trip to Scotland; a particularly aggressive cold; and a little jaunt over to the Netherlands, visiting universities. Now, the Netherlands have always been a source of linguistic bafflement for me. Mostly, I’ve wondered, why does the country have two names: Holland and the Netherlands? Why do we call Dutch Dutch while the Dutch call their language Nederlands? Why do Americans call German Dutch while we call it German and the Germans call it Deutsch? It all seems unreasonably complicated.

The first question is fairly easy to answer: in English, we use both titles but the Netherlands is the most politically accurate. The Dutch use Nederland and this is the correct term for the whole country. Holland, technically speaking, refers to two regions to the West of the Netherlands: Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, the most populated areas which incorporate the major tourist attractions like Amsterdam. Holland was used as far back as the 14th century and came from Old Dutch holt land meaning ‘wood land’. Problem number one: solved.

Regions of The Netherlands

On a side note, New Zealand, discovered by Dutchman Abel Tasman and once part of the Dutch empire, is named after the province of Zeeland which is just below Zuid Holland and quite transparently means ‘new sea land’.

Problem number two is a little more knotty. Dutch was first recorded in English around the end of the 14th century and comes from Old High German. It originally meant ‘vulgar’ or ‘popular’ – possibly from Proto Indo-European *teuta- meaning ‘people’. In Germany, from the 9th century onwards, it was used in adjectival form to refer to the Latin vulgar tongue, distinguishing it from the Latin of academic and ecclesiastical domains. From then on it came to mean the language of the vernacular generally and Germanic languages as a whole. Like English, it spread from denoting the language alone to the culture and its people to the extent that, by the 12th or 13th century, it appeared in the nation’s title: Diutisklant, now Deutschland, the area of modern Germany. So in England by the 15th century, it was used in a way not unlike how we might say Germanic now, to represent both the area of ‘Low Dutch’ (the Netherlands) and ‘High Dutch’ (Germany). When the Dutch Republic was established as an independent state, there was a linguistic divergence: English kept Dutch to refer to the people and language that were ‘Low Dutch’ whereas the Dutch themselves, along with the Germans, kept the term in reference to the people and language of ‘High Dutch’.

What’s more, using Dutch to refer to German did stick around in American English which is why the Pennsylvania Dutch aren’t of Dutch origin at all but in fact emigrated from the Rhineland and Switzerland.

From the 17th century, Dutch has been used with pejorative connotations due to the strong military and commercial rivalry between the British and the Dutch at that time. These connotations then continued in America in particular because of the high levels of immigration from Germany. This has given our language phrases which draw especially on the Dutch’s supposed traits of heavy drinking and miserliness such as: a Dutch treat (1887), where everyone contributes their fair share; a Dutch uncle (1838), meaning ‘a strict disciplinarian’; and a Dutch feast (1785), apparently where the host gets drunk before the guests.

Fortunately, the Netherlands is actually a great place to visit and we no longer think of the Dutch as stingy drunkards.


One thought on “Going Dutch

  1. Pingback: Get to Know…The Netherlands! | EF Foundation for Foreign Study Mid-Atlantic

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