Double Dutch

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

Had we been born in the 17th century, you and I, we would not have been friends. This was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars, the bloody quest for supremacy of the seas, when the Dutch hated the English and the English hated the Dutch. And while the hostilities are long past, their remnants still linger in the English language today.

Even the word Dutch itself came to be a pejorative, an adjective used in the sense of ‘false’. For example, Dutch metal is a form of fake gold, made mostly from copper, which is used to make cheap jewellery. A Dutch concert is an unmusical racket, where everyone is playing or singing to a different tune. And to mount a Dutch defence is to retreat, rather than fight.

Double Dutch refers to something nonsensical, incomprehensible or needlessly complicated. This might be where we get Dutch crossing from; that is, to cross the street slant-wise. Or Dutch auction, also known as a reverse auction, where the auctioneer starts with a high price and lowers it until someone is prepared to pay. Then there’s my personal favourite, that general expression of disbelief: “Well, I’m a Dutchman!”

The usual Dutch stereotypes are never far away here. For example, a Dutch uncle is someone who likes to give heavy-handed advice without being asked. Sure, it may be sound advice – but it’s also overbearing, paternalistic and dripping with Calvinistic severity. Then there’s Dutch courage: the kind you get from being blind drunk. It was said that, back in the days of battle, the Dutch needed to sink a few drinks before they could face the fight.

Inevitably, many of these terms of endearment-slash-abuse relate to what the Dutch coyly describe as ‘thriftiness’ (and everyone else calls ‘stinginess’). A Dutch party, a Dutch supper and a Dutch lunch, for instance – all terms that have since fallen out of use – referred to events where you had to bring your own supplies because the host was too cheap to pay your way. (Incidentally, in Dutch this is known as an ‘American party’.)

Similarly, a Dutch treat means to pay your own share (read: no treat at all!). This, of course, is a variant of the better-known phrase going Dutch, where you split the bill equally. “Aha!” I hear you say. At last a positive trait: that lauded Dutch penchant for equality. You’ll not be happy to hear, then, that in Egypt this is called Englizy – ‘English style’.

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