‘Secretly’ is the operative word here, for I can’t think of a single ethnic slur for the Dutch on either side of the ocean.
That’s odd, considering how many exist for just about everyone else: blacks, Jews, Spaniards, Mexicans, Latin Americans, Vietnamese, French, Germans, Chinese, Italians, Czechs, Poles, Russians, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs – did I leave anyone out?
However, no other nation comes anywhere near the Dutch in the number of negative idioms in which they are mentioned. Why?
After all, idioms appear for a reason; they reflect some deep-seated perceptions accumulated over time, often centuries. Even when such perceptions no longer pertain, idioms elucidate a nation’s mentality more brightly than just about anything else.
For example, many idioms refer to Dutch drunkenness, even though here the British are the pot calling the kettle black: Dutch courage, Dutch cheer and Dutch milk all mean booze; Dutch concert is drunken noise; Dutch headache is hangover; Dutch agreement is one made by drunk people; Dutch lunch is liquid.
The Dutch are also supposed to be pedlars of fake goods. Thus Dutch leaf is false gold leaf and Dutch gold is the yellow alloy of copper and zinc.
Though Sweden has the highest suicide rate in Europe, we describe suicide as Do the Dutch, not Do the Swede.
Double Dutch means gibberish, even though, being a Germanic language, Dutch is more comprehensible to an Anglophone than, say, Finnish, Hungarian or even Russian.
Dutch treat or to go Dutch means splitting the cost of a meal, with an implication of meanness.
To be (or get) in Dutch means to be or get in trouble.
To beat the Dutch is to exceed expectations, and That beats the Dutch! is an exclamation of surprise.
Dutch relations also come in for rough treatment. Dutch uncle is a compulsive fault finder; while Dutch wife or Dutch widow is a prostitute.
Dutch comfort is cold, telling distressed people that things could be worse; Dutch defence is sham defence; Dutch talent is more brawn than brain; to get one’s Dutch up is to lose temper; to Dutch something means to ruin it; neither Dutch bed nor Dutch bath would meet your expectations; Dutch cough is flatulence.
And so on, ad infinitum: dozens of such expressions exist or have existed. One gets the impression that whenever the English dislike something they describe it as Dutch. Why?
One may think that such hard feelings go back to the Anglo-Dutch fight for maritime supremacy in the 17th century, and indeed some of the cited idioms go back to that time. It was early in the century that Shakespeare wrote of “Those frothy Dutch men, puft with double beer, That drink and swill in every place they come, Doth not a little aggravate mine ire.”
Yet most of such expressions date back to the next century, the 18th. What happened then for the English to see the Dutch as a bunch of duplicitous, tight-fisted, drunken, riotous, licentious swine?
True, in the second half of the 17th century, after Holland gained her independence from Spain, England and Holland fought three wars.
During the second of them, in 1667, Admiral De Ruyter inflicted on the Royal Navy one of the worst defeats it has ever suffered. De Ruyter’s armada sailed into the Thames estuary and then into the Medway, where the British fleet was routed (Ruytered?).
Yet Holland isn’t the only country ever to win a war against England: the French Normans conquered England in 1066.
Then between 1337 and 1453 England and France had a series of clashes known as the Hundred Years’ War. During that conflict between the Houses of Plantagenet and Valois, England won every major battle but lost all her holdings in France, roughly the western third of the country.
So why doesn’t the English language reflect any hostility towards the French? All we get is French letters and French leave, for which the French equivalents pay back the compliment: capote anglaise and filer à l’anglaise respectively.
This, though the latest wars against France (1803-1815) were fought more recently than England’s wars against Holland.
So what is it about the Dutch? One might find plausible explanations for each swathe of pejorative idioms, but not for the sheer number of them.
For example, the Dutch brought gin, the corruption of the Dutch word jenever, to England, where it became known as ‘mother’s ruin’. That may partly explain the idioms referring to Dutch boozing.
Also, Holland had some of Europe’s busiest ports, where beached sailors must have drunk up a storm. Prostitution was also rife in port towns, which may account for all those Dutch widows or wives.
Then Holland is a predominantly Calvinist country, and parsimony is a doctrinal requirement in that dubious version of Christianity – hence Dutch treat and variants. Holland is also a trading nation, and traders tend to be accused of double dealing, rightly or wrongly.
However, the French brought wine to England, and yet they haven’t rated any drink-related idioms. Also, Spain and Portugal were great trading powers competing with England, and yet we don’t talk about Spanish gold or Portuguese leaf.
I suspect that the Dutch were singled out because Holland was the only post-1066 country to have occupied England. For unfathomable reasons that occupation went down in history as the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689.
The stadtholder of Holland, Prince William of Orange, and his wife Mary, daughter of James II, came to England on the crest of anti-Catholic animus. James II was a Catholic and, when in his 50s he produced a son, some aristocrats and bishops worried about a possible Catholic restoration in England.
A Dutch invasion was preferable, and they committed what anywhere else would have been regarded as high treason by inviting William and Mary over. The stadtholder’s fleet of 500 ships promptly landed a force of 21,000 men.
The loyal army, dispersed all over the country, was pushed back. The Dutch entered London, and it stayed under their military occupation for 18 months. The English king was deposed and deported to France.
The invasion was accompanied by a Dutch propaganda offensive, claiming that William came to protect Englishmen’s liberties and the Church of England. Yet his real aim was to use English troops to fight the French on the continent.
That he proceeded to do, sending some two-thirds of the English army to the Low Lands. His heart was in Holland, and his body soon followed when he too left to fight the French.
It was because of this foreign invasion that the constitution of England changed to emphasise the supremacy of Parliament over the Crown. The wearer of that headgear lacked legitimacy, and his power was weak. The 1689 Bill of Rights simply reflected the status quo.
The Bill quelled the growing popular resistance, involving most Londoners and eventually most Englishmen. But it didn’t reduce the popular resentment against the Dutch invaders. Is that why so many negative idioms involving the Dutch appeared after the Glorious Revolution?
Let me tell you, if that Revolution was Glorious, then I’m a Dutchman.