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Disbanding the etymological League of Nations

Bad and good news should alternate. Last week (Oxford Etymologist, May 15, 2019), we witnessed the denigration of everything that is Dutch. But the devil is not as black as he is painted, and the word Dutch occurs in a few positive contexts. More than a century ago, the English knew the phrase to stoke the Dutchman. It meant “to keep the steam up” and referred to the Flying Dutchman, the fastest train on the Great Western Railway. To be sure, the original Flying Dutchman was a legendary ghost ship that can never make port. Some of our readers may have seen Richard Wagner’s early opera with this title. Despite the terrifying name, the train was the pride and joy of its company.

More problematic is the phrase to put a dutchman in. The meaning of the word dutchman (here it should probably be spelled with small d) is not a mystery. The phrase was used by builders and cabinet-makers when a small piece of wood has to be inserted to make a bad joint good. As far as I can judge, the origin of the strange sense (why dutchman or Dutchman?) remains debatable. Therefore, I’ll refer to what a correspondent to American Notes and Queries (ANQ) suggested in 1889. No online discussion I have consulted mentions it. By the end of the nineteenth century, the phrase put a dutchman in, apparently an Americanism, had been current for quite some time.

The Flying Dutchman in its full glory. Image credit: “GWR 7ft gauge Flying Dutchman” by Trainiac. Public Domain via Flickr.

In Swabia, old German carpenters and cabinet-makers were known to make use of the expression to put a schwab in (the German version was not given in the note) when fitting joints and mortises very loosely, and then making their work tight and firm by inserting small wedges. (Mortise “a hole or recess cut into a part which is designated to receive a corresponding projection, also called a tenon, on another part, so as to join or lock the parts together.”) “Hence the phrase current among the building fraternity to put a Dutchman in—that is, where a joint does not fit perfectly, to insert a small bit of wood after the German fashion.” If this conjecture has merit, we witness the not uncommon substitution of Dutch for German. Last week, I cited “Pennsylvania Dutch,” the name of a German dialect in the United States, and suggested that one should not be in a hurry to take every problematic use of Dutch for “German.” But here the equation of German with Dutch looks reasonable.

Also, seeing how many people with German roots settled in the United States, we can understand why dutchman was coined in America. In principle, every claim to the American origin of an English word, unless it is the name of a peculiarly American institution or an obvious borrowing from Spanish or some indigenous or African language, should be examined with a measure of disbelief. More than once, it turns out that we are dealing with a local British word, little known “at home” but carried across the ocean and given a new lease on/of life in the colonies. Yet dutchman seems to be a genuine Americanism, though even here further research may make this conclusion invalid.

This is what a dutchman in woodwork looks like. Image credit: “Wooden patch” by Sam Sheffield. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The Dutch, as we have seen, were a favorite target of ridicule for British speakers. The French fared no better. Out of modesty, I’ll bypass French kiss and French letter and will discuss only the enigmatic locution to take French leave. The earliest citation in the OED online goes back to 1751, while Merriam-Webster, also online, gives 1748, without citing the sentence in question (consequently, the date in Wikipedia should be slightly emended). In any case, it is the fairly recent origin of our phrase, rather than the year of its first occurrence in print, that matters.

The phrase has been discussed in numerous letters to the editor and in dictionaries. The meaning “to leave unobtrusively or without permission” has never been in doubt. Possibly, as we’ll see, “without permission” is at the core of the phrase. But the reference to French remains a puzzle, the more so as the Germans have an exact analog, while the French call it “English leave.” Though Frank Chance, an astute and extremely knowledgeable etymologist, devoted two letters to the phrase (Notes and Queries 7/III, 5-6 and 518), he did not solve the riddle. The not uncommon reference to the Napoleonic wars as the time when the idiom came into being should be dismissed, because, once again to use James A. H. Murrays favorite expression, it is at odds with chronology: people were known “to take French leave” before Napoleon, who was born in 1769, and, consequently, before the wars. Attempts to connect French in this idiom with free or some words like free should be dismissed as fanciful.

The Flying Dutchman ghost ship. Unlike its steaming namesake, it never existed. Image credit: “The Flying Dutchman” by Louis Michel Eilshemius. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Even though the reference to French/English remains enigmatic, I think the following comment, printed in 1884, may be of some interest: “When a soldier or servant takes ‘French leave’, he, for a time at least, absconds. If one jocularly remark [sic: it is the subjunctive] of something which he is in search of and cannot find, ‘it has taken French leave’, he means that it has been unduly removed, or possibly purloined. When a person is said to take French leave, the phrase invariably presupposes that he is a subordinate, bound to seek leave from a possibly only temporary superior. Its origin probably arose either from the old-fashioned contempt of the English, and especially of the French sailor, for the Frenchman, who was thus taunted for being unexpectedly absent when everything seemed to promise an unpacific [!] ‘meeting’, or from the escapes of French prisoners of war.” Sure enough, in the later usage, especially at school, leave means “permission” rather than “absence.”

I wonder whether the reference to sailors’ language will lead us anywhere. A similar scenario was discussed last week in relation to Dutch courage. English is full of phrases going back to maritime vocabulary. For my prospective dictionary of idioms, my assistants and I looked through dozens of journals whose titles mean nothing today. One periodical among them stands out not only as a forum but also as a fully reliable source of information. I mean The Mariner’s Mirror (its first volume appeared in 1911). To take French leave has not been discussed in its pages, but perhaps the phrase deserves a comment by one of its authors. If our story begins with take French leave, all the others (such as to take English leave and to take Irish leave) are derivative of it.

The end of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. Our idiom has nothing to do with it. Image credit: “Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow” by Adolph Norten. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I planned to finish this essay with Russian roulette, but that would have been too scary.

As many people may still remember, the League of Nations was famous for great expectations and deplorably modest results. Its etymological equivalent is not much more profitable. However, to use the word that describes the backbone of our education, talking about the origin of our vocabulary is great fun.

Time to take French leave.

Featured image: “The Austrian, Christian social politician and Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss addressing the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933” by unknown photographer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. 

Recent Comments

  1. […] Disbanding the etymological League of Nations  OUPblog […]

  2. James Shaw

    “Its origin probably arose either from the old-fashioned contempt of the English, and especially of the French sailor, for the Frenchman.” Probably ‘English sailor’ was intended.

    Always interesting posts. Thank you.

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