The Language Lounge removed to the Netherlands for a short break last month, with the specific mission of observing several of the various putative Dutch contributions to English on their native soil: Dutch courage, Dutch uncles, Dutch ovens, Dutch auctions, Dutch doors, Dutch hoes, and Dutch treats, to name a few.

The Dutch treats were a regular feature of our stay there but none of the others came to our attention, and so it got us thinking about European compounds in English — in which a European nation adjective supplies the first term — and in particular how it is that, among its larger and more illustrious neighbors, this rather small European country has achieved such impressive memic success, inspiring an eclectic and large contribution of English compound nouns.

This is not so many, you may think, but what strikes us about the Dutch list in comparison to other such compound sets in English dictionaries is that it achieves a fairly impressive length without including any of the three commonest categories into which these terms fall:

  1. compounds that refer to organisms, whether genus, species, or variety (Belgian sheepdog, Spanish moss)
  2. compounds that refer to historical phenomena (the Spanish Armada, the Irish Famine)
  3. compounds that denote foods (Irish soda bread, Hungarian goulash)

We often think of cultural influence as a corollary of economic power, which might lead you to think that, for influence in modern English, the main European contenders would be Germany, France, and Italy. The results are mixed. Nearly all compounds in English dictionaries in which Italian is the first term denote foods or organisms, and they are not so numerous. Italian sonnet is an exception to the rule. Most compounds beginning with Italian in use today are in fact deemed transparent and do not merit coverage in dictionaries (e.g., Italian restaurant/marble/sausage). 

France has done very well in leaving its mark in English dictionaries: aside from the numerous food terms and the smattering of dog breeds, we still have French blue, French chalk, French door/window, French heel, French horn, French kiss, French knot, and French leave.

Germany, both today and historically, has prided itself on being an economic powerhouse, but it makes a rather poor showing in English dictionaries and in English generally — at least in so far as the adjective "German" is concerned. Aside from foods (German pancake) and animals (German shepherd), the only salient compounds today are German measles and German silver. It wasn't always so: the Century Dictionary, published in the US in the 1890s, listed several other German compounds (albeit several of them in one of the categories noted above):

Even in the 19th century, however, Dutch was already running well ahead of its Germanic neighbor in the compounds race:

Under the first quote above the editors of the Century note that

The word Dutch in this sense came to have in several phrases an opprobrious or humorous application, perhaps due in part to the animosity engendered by the long and severe contest for the supremacy of the seas waged by England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century.

Or, the "Herring Wars" as they are sometimes called. The suggestion is not so much that Dutch economic and political power paved the way for its influence on the English lexicon, but rather that the resentment of that power did. The Oxford English Dictionary makes a similar observation in a curious and rather lumpy note that prefaces a number of "Dutch" compounds:

Characteristic of or attributed to the Dutch; often with an opprobrious or derisive application, largely due to the rivalry and enmity between the English and Dutch in the 17th c.  Often with allusion to the drinking habits ascribed to the Dutch; also to the broad heavy figures attributed to the Netherlanders, or to their flat-bottomed vessels. Sometimes little more than [equivalent to] foreign, un-English.

"Broad heavy figures?" Is there anything disparaging that you can't say about the Dutch in an English dictionary?

This leads us to suspect that what really earns a compound an enduring place in the English lexicon is meaningful engagement with the English — which was of course abetted by geography in the case of the Dutch. This might also explain the wealth of "French" compounds in English, and probably also supplies a reason for two other large contributors: "Welsh" (it can be followed by black, corgi, onion, pony, poppy, rarebit, and terrier in English dictionaries), and "Scotch" (which shows up as the first term in asphodel, broom, broth, egg, fir, gale, kiss, pancake, pine, tape, terrier, thistle, whiskey, and woodcock). These lists, however, are rather dull: they're mostly plants, animals, and foods, the sorts of things that the English could have learned about or dubbed by simply taking a cross-border excursion. Scotch tape is an exception to this and also a sort of false positive on the list, being a trademark, an Americanism, and not readily available in Scotland. Completing the proximate geographic set, compounds beginning with Irish and Belgian also supply similarly colorless lists in English dictionaries, mostly of foods and animals.

It would seem then that in order to get a strong and persistent set of compounds in English, a country has not only to be nearby and engaged, but also has to get properly up the noses of the English, preferably over a period of centuries. We suspect that it has also helped the Dutch that they can be encapsulated in a monosyllable: English likes things short and snappy whenever possible. This might explain the dearth of compounds relating to European countries with ungainly adjectives: Portuguese man-of-war is the lone entry for that country in many dictionaries.

There is much to love about the Netherlands today — a country that is socially progressive, bicycle friendly, extremely well served by public transportation, solvent, and, as far as we know, not at odds with Britain about anything of importance — so it is interesting that so many of the pejorative compounds associated with the Dutch persist in English. We suspect that most people use them today without much knowledge of their origins, but perhaps the Dutch compounds are a cautionary tale: don't mess the arbiters of a leading world language — it may result in your being needlessly disparaged for centuries to come!


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 1st 2009, 2:04 AM
Comment by: Kitty S. (Brooklyn, NY)
Oh dear: "This might explain the dearth of compounds relating to European countries with ungainly adjectives: Portuguese man-of-war is the loan entry for that country in many dictionaries." (from the second to last paragraph). The loan entry? The Loan Ranger?

Oh dear. From word people, yet!

Fixed! —Ed.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 3:48 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
You missed "Scotch mist"!
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 4:56 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
certainly not 'double dutch'.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 5:40 AM
Comment by: Sheezu S. (New Delhi India)
great
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 5:55 AM
Comment by: Ellis D. (London United Kingdom)
There are mutually reversible compounds especially English/French:

Take French leave = filer a l'anglaise (escape in the English way)
French lace = Broderie Anglaise (English lace)
French letter ( condom in England) = capotte anglaise
French horn = Cor anglais
etc etc
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 7:46 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
A fascinating article, especially the concluding advice not to mess with the arbiters of a leading world language in case they enshrine you in their vocabulary in uncomplimentary ways.

I would have thought that American could be considered a leading world language - the US has certainly given the world lots of new words. Has America coined any derogatory 'Russian-isms'? If not, is it because the American people are just too generous-hearted to do such a thing? Or perhaps the enmity didn't stretch over a long enough period for it to be reflected in the language.

Two uses of 'Dutch' that aren't perjorative:

To go Dutch, meaning to split the bill (usually referring to a couple on a date).

My old Dutch, meaning my wife or my old beloved companion.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Judy G. (Huntington BeaCH, CA)
One "dutch" food item that comes to mind immediately is dutch chocolate!
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Margaret K. (Pittsburgh, PA)
I am curious if the American transformation of Deutch to Dutch
(as in Pennsylvania Dutch) contributes to plethora of Dutch compounds.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Kitty S. (Brooklyn, NY)
How about "Russian roulette"?
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
To Geoff A., I think "Going Dutch" is pejorative. Here is the US, we use "Dutch treat" and "going Dutch" interchangeably. I believe the inference is that paying your own way (splitting the bill) is considered treating you by a Dutchman.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Kitty S: Sorry, these are my nemesis. I blame collapsing memory spaces in my brain.
Chris P, Geoff A: Yeah, these are both good examples; I was focusing mainly on compound nouns, but these are certainly part of the general phenom. of “Dutch” leaving its mark on English.
Margaret K: I tend to think not. Interestingly, however, “Dutch treat” is an Americanism (first attested late 19th c. but presumably in use earlier), so it’s possible that this one was so influenced. On the other hand, the Dutch had quite a presence in the New World early on.
Geoff A, again: Curiously, “Polish” and not “Russian” is the pejorative adjective of choice in US English, with “Mexican” a distant second. These compounds, all insulting to Poles or Mexicans, usually do not make it out of slang dictionaries. I expect that immigration is the cause of both.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Peter L. (Columbia City, OR)
OK, your article on Going Dutch uses the phrase "impressive memic success", which at first glance seems to make sense, but just what does memic mean? A little help here, please, as dictionary.com and our own visualthesaurus.com don't seem to have this word in the lexicon.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Peter: Memic is an adjectival form of meme, defined by the VT as "a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one generation to another by nongenetic means (as by imitation)." You also see the adjective memetic, but Richard Dawkins, who introduced the meme concept, prefers memic.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 12:39 PM
Comment by: Mary C. (Harrington Park, NJ)
I live in the part of the country settled by the Dutch in the 1600,1700's. Dutch here connotes thrifty,practical,unpretentious,unsentimental. Dutch Colonials dot the roads,clever sloping roofs shed the rain and double as porch covers. They have Dutch doors that both let in the air and keep out the animals.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Patricia W. (Capitola, CA)
Enjoyed the article but thought it might have given the reason or source of how 'dutch treat' came to mean 'splitting the bill' on a date - thank you to Ravi who mentioned it in his response.
Also, missed a 'Dutch load', which my mother (Norwegian/Swedish ancestry) used to infer 'carrying too much in one trip, thus usually dropping or breaking something', as in carrying dishes to the kitchen or when carrying items up the stairs.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 1:48 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
My Dutch Uncle, and some Hungarian uncles, too, would occasionally have a few Heinikens and then decide that the kids needed to know what a "Dutch rub" was. So they'd grab the kids in headlocks and rub their knuckles on the top back of the kids' heads until they said (just plain) uncle.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 2:39 PM
Comment by: Glenn A. H.
a French kiss from a Portuguese water dog -- thanks, I'll pass.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Ellis D: that is a fascinating point. I wonder who copied whom in each case?!

How about some 'English' phrases? I can usefully translate for you:

'English summer' - it lasts a week, never coinciding with your holiday;
'English breakfast' - cholesterol overload;
'English common law' - made up as we go along;
'English constitution' - we don't have a written one (see above);
'English Channel' - do we really own it all?

'English disease' is the most interesting, since it can mean:
syphilis,
depression,
hypochondria,
Sweating Sickness (common in 16th century Europe)
rickets.

All of these were doubtless slurs by other nations, but we ourselves consider Football Hooliganism to be the English Disease.

And to finish with a Dutch link: apparently the 'Engelse ziekte' from their point of view is our habit of writing compound Dutch words as separate words. I'm not aware that I do that but I'll ask my Dutch friend, just to be sure!
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Peter E. (Philadelphia, PA)
Is "dutch load" the equivalent of the Anglo "lazy man's load"?
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 9:56 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
"Up the English nose" caught my attention...but I love the true Britisher articulation!
Wednesday September 2nd 2009, 7:40 AM
Comment by: Kitty S. (Brooklyn, NY)
What is a compound noun, exactly?
Friday September 4th 2009, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
As pointed out by someone earlier in this thread, isn't it patent that the supposed thriftiness of the Dutch can signify a 'Lazy man's load" rather than an oversized one. And, by stretching thriftiness to tightwad-ness we get Durch treat, the bogus version of treating someone to a lunch. That would be in keeping with the sense of many other uses of that epithet.
Sunday September 6th 2009, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Taganana
I have a few compounds with Spanish:

Spanish black, brown, red, white (pigments).
Spanish chestnut.
Spanish grass.
Spanish fowl.
Spanish main (NE coast of S. America between Orinoco river and Panama and part of the Caribbean Sea.
Spanish fly.

And two with Dutch:

Dutch wife.
Dutch auction.

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