Double Dutch

In spite of all appearances to the contrary, this phrase – meaning, ‘nonsense’, or ‘gibberish’ – does not seem to have originally been spoken with the Dutch in mind at all. Rather it was once intended as a slur against the Germans, those rascally scapegoats of the 20th Century, although my research suggests that even at the time (late 1700s – early 1800s), this little detail might not have been apparent to your average slurrer.

‘Dutch’ was originally the generic name for both Germans and, as they were formally called, Hollanders. High Dutch was the language of southern Germany and Low Dutch the language of The Netherlands. I have been at least partially persuaded that ‘Double Dutch’ is in fact a synonym for High Dutch and as such involves the Germans and not the Dutch.

In the way of so many of the greatest idioms, ‘Double Dutch’ originated from sailors. Indeed, the first recorded usage of the phrase, and many subsequent usages, refer(s) to Double Dutch in terms of the winding of rope. The indication here is that ‘Double Dutch’ is the linguistic equivalent of a badly coiled rope. Those sailors really knew how to make a man feel small.

There are a host of phrases in English that include the word ‘Dutch’. Given the close proximity of the two countries, their proud maritime traditions and their long standing trading and military rivalries, this is hardly surprising. Here are a few. All of them, as you will see, paint the Dutch in a fairly poor light.

Dutch bargain – a bargain made when one is debilitated by drink – first recorded in 1654.
Dutch defence – a legal defence in which the defendant seeks clemency by deceitfully betraying others – 1749.
Dutch comfort – cold comfort; only good because things could have been worse – 1796.
Dutch metal/Dutch gold – a cheap alloy resembling gold – 1825.
Dutch courage – brash bravery induced by drink – 1826.
Dutch treat – no treat as such; each person pays for their own expenses – 1887.

In other news, Double-Dutch is also the name of a children’s skipping game, in which two ropes are used. I’m told the game is still played, both on the street and at tournament level, most commonly in the USA.

Wow, we’re really learning something today, aren’t we?



Filed under Idioms & Their Origins

5 responses to “Double Dutch

  1. What about a Dutch oven? Or Dutch cleanser? Any ideas?

  2. Oh yeah, and what about getting in “Dutch?” (trouble) (Most of these I have mentioned are or were heard in the U.S. though not lately)

  3. sarahjaneprosetry

    In America double Dutch refers to jump rope.

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