Well I'm a Dutchman

The English language absorbs words and phrases from a bewildering variety of sources, including our former adversaries.

Take the Dutch. We have a Dutch treat (which is no treat at all); double Dutch (gibberish); Dutch courage (based on alcohol); and "if that's true I'm a Dutchman" (you're lying).

There's no doubt that the Dutch were once ferocious trading rivals who were not afraid of a scrap – the naval encounters between the two nations in the 17th century included the "four-day battle" which reflects the fact that neither side was prepared to give an inch.

But perhaps the most telling Dutch-based phrase is "Dutch cap" as slang for a diaphragm contraceptive device. The use of "French letter" for condom reminds us that we've also been known to fall out with our next-door neighbours – while the infamous aphrodisiac (and toxic) Spanish fly ensures that our third major naval adversary is not left out of this somewhat disreputable list.

1 comment:

garik said...

Even more interesting, I find, is the expression "forlorn hope". This is not quite what it appears, and is actually a foreign military term. In German verlorener Hauf meant "lost troop", and referred to what was essentially a suicide mission. The verlorener Hauf was the first wave of troops sent forward against the enemy's defences: most would be expected to die. If you survived, however, it was a good way to get medals and promotion. Since the middle ages, the term has been applied to any troop or battalion put in a position where they can expect very heavy casualties.

English seems to have borrowed the term from Dutch verloren hoop as "forlorn hope".

The assumption that the second word was English "hope" (a plausible interpretation in the context) has led to a shift in the meaning of "forlorn" from "forsaken" or "abandoned" (in line with its other Germanic cognates) to its modern meaning.