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A linguistic League of Nations

Some time ago, a question followed my discussion of sound-symbolic and sound-imitative sl-words (March 13, 2019): “What about slave?” Obviously, as I replied, not all words of a certain phonetic structure belong to the same homogeneous group. Yet ever since, I have been planning to write something about this tricky subject. Slave would not have deserved special attention if it were not so close to Slav. By way of introduction, I decided to devote some space to the use of ethnic names in words and phrases. The examples are trivial, but perhaps some of them will be new to our readers.

An often-discussed adjective of this type is Welsh. Its Old English form was wealh. It referred to Welshmen and Britons, but it also meant “foreigner, stranger” and “slave.” Since the Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the early Middle Ages fought with the indigenous Celts, those meanings are easy to understand. Yet one wonders why the wise old king Hrothgar, Beowulf’s host in the famous Old English poem, has a wife called Wealh-theo, that is, “foreign slave.” Was she captured as a concubine and attained the status of the queen? Such cases were not too rare.

This is Hrothgar’s gentle and wise wife Wealhtheo[w], as we think she looked like. Image credit: “Queen Wealhtheo[w] as the hostess of the banquet” from the children’s book, Stories of Beowulf, by J. R. Skelton. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

As is well-known, walnuts don’t grow on walls. The old form wealh-hnutu means “foreign nut,” and the same first component occurs elsewhere. Perhaps the most interesting compound of this type is wealh-stod “translator, interpreter; a person versed in foreign languages.” If stod had a long vowel (then wealh-stōd), it might be related to the verb stand, with the whole meaning “someone who stood by (while translating from a foreign language),” but this etymology is far from certain. In contrast, the much abused Welsh rabbit poses no problems. The name is a joke: something cheap (and unappetizing) is given the name of an expensive dainty. Such are also Irish lemons, or Irish apricots “potatoes,” Essex lion “veal dish,” and many others. The ineradicable attempt to turn Welsh rabbit into Welsh rare-bit is akin to the famous folk etymology that changes asparagus into sparrow grass. As H. F. Fowler observed, Welsh rabbit is amusing and right, and Welsh rarebit stupid and wrong. (Read his incomparable book Modern English Usage, but take one of the older editions.)

By far, the most common “ethnic” word in English phrases is Dutch. A year ago, I wrote about Dutch uncle. The still current phrase is (if I do something,) I am a Dutchman (= a great fool). According to the traditional explanation, such negative references to Dutch go back to the Anglo-Dutch trade wars, fought mainly in the second half of the seventeenth century, though they spilled over into the eighteen hundreds. The truth of this explanation is not immediately clear. Several idioms with Dutch surfaced in the nineteenth century (even in the second half of it), much too late to be echoes of those conflicts. Why didn’t they become popular at the height of the wars, when they must have been on everybody’s lips? Also, some are so rare (and possibly useless) that even the OED has no citations of them. In 1881, a correspondent to Notes and Queries asked about Dutch month: “What is the origin of this duration of time when it takes the meaning of a long time, as in the following sentence?—‘why, you will be as long as a Dutch month’?” No response followed. It would be nice to answer that question a hundred and forty years after it was asked. The public is expected to contribute to the success of the media. This is what is called “going Dutch.”

This is not asparagus, is it? Image credit: “Nature Grass Bird” by André Chivinski. CC0 Public Domain via pxhere. ‘

Double Dutch “unintelligible gibberish” was first recorded in 1876. There is no certainty that Dutch in some such locutions means “German,” as in the name of the dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch, and that such idioms express the traditional animosity of the English toward the Germans (a suggestion along these lines has been made). I am a Dutchman turned up in a printed text in 1843. Surely, Dutchman does not mean “German” in it. Also, in at least some such phrases, German could have been expected! Why this long and steady obsession with the Dutch, rather than the constantly denigrated French, about whom something will be said next week?

One may conjecture that, once Dutch became a derogatory term, it continued to live on and began to be applied to practically anything despicable and mean. Perhaps so. I am not contesting the traditional explanation that goes back to E. Cobham Brewer (if not to some earlier authority), but a note of caution may not be out of place. The OED testifies to the existence of many phrases “often with an opprobrious or derisive application, largely due to the rivalry and enmity between the English and Dutch in the 17th century.” As usual, the difficulty consists not only in establishing the general principle but in tracing each phrase to its origins.

A typical example is the idiom Dutch courage “bravery induced by drinking,” first recorded in 1826. William Platt, a knowledgeable, even if not always reliable, student of many languages, wrote in 1881, that “this is an ironical expression, dating its origins as far back as 1745, and conveys a sneering allusion to the conduct of the Dutch at the battle of Fontenoy [May 11, 1745, fought in the War of the Austrian Succession]. At the commencement of the engagement the onslaught of the English allied army promised victory, but the Dutch betook themselves to an ignominious flight.” The OED remarks, as it often does, that this explanation is at odds with chronology. This damning phrase, probably coined by James A. H. Murray, killed many attractive but unreliable hypotheses.

An anchor left at home. Image credit: “Anchor Old Rusty” by guvo59. Pixabay License via Pixabay.

Another most suspicious explanation runs as follows: “In the Dutch wars, it had been observed that the captain of the Hollander’s men-of-war, when they were about to engage with our ships, usually set a hogshead of brandy abroach [“in a condition of letting out a liquid”] afore the mast and bid the men drink…; and our poor seamen felt the force of the brandy to their cost.” The literature on the origin of idioms is full of such anecdotes. It is hard to disprove them, but of course, the venerable law of onus probandi expects the writer to cite some arguments that would make the story credible. Here is another conjecture: “May not this expression have arisen out of the practice, stated to have existed, of making Dutch criminals sentenced to death drunk before hanging or beheading?” How much more useful this explanation would have been, if its author had referred to his source! Where was this practice “stated to have existed”?

Personally, I prefer the following explanation: “I thought everybody knew that ‘Dutch courage’ was a jocular term for a glass of Hollands, when resorted to as a fillip for a faint heart.” My preference means absolutely nothing. (Hollands is Dutch, or Geneva, gin.) Everybody? By the way, fillip is probably a sound-imitative word related to flip! Such is the state of the art. One may read on and discover a phrase like the Dutchman’s anchor at home “an object that would have been useful in this situation, but it was, unfortunately, left at home” and many, many more.

A fillip to a faint heart. Image credit: “Hollandse Graanjenever” by unknown author. CC BY- SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To be continued!

Featured image: “Boors Drinking in a Bar” by Adriaen van Ostade, National Gallery of Ireland. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    The phrase “double dutch coiled against the sun” appears in 19th-century books about sea voyages, for example, in this 1804 use:

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