9 June – Dutch Feast

John Camden Hotten was one of the first and best lexicogaphers of slang. He gathered and documented what he himself described as “that evanescent, vulgar language, ever changing with fashion and taste… spoken by persons in every grade of life, rich and poor, honest and dishonest”. One result of his indefatigable quest for the language of “fast, high and low life” was the publication, in 1859, of A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words. On the day Hotten died in 1873 (of brain fever, or a surfeit of pork chops, depending on which historian you ask) he was still revising his work.

Among the back slang and rhyming slang, and the patter from sailors and shopkeepers, are such expressions as a “Dutch uncle”, defined by the author as “a person often introduced in conversation, but exceedingly difficult to describe”. A “Dutch concert”  is one in which “each performer plays a different tune”, and “Dutch consolation” is simply “Thank God it’s no worse”.

These less well-known Dutch formulae sit alongside those that have endured to this day; “Dutch courage”, namely false courage garnered through drinking; “double Dutch”, i.e. gibberish; and “going Dutch”, where everyone splits the bill and thus risks the suggestion of miserliness. But why Dutch?

In the seventeenth century, the Dutch and British were at loggerheads. Both sought maritime superiority, and not least the control of the sea routes that carried exotic cargo from the rich Spice Islands of the East Indies. The result of such vying for supremacy was three naval wars between the years 1652 and 1674. On 9 June 1667, the Dutch sailed up the Medway, sank multiple British ships, and blockaded the Thames. The ensuing bitterness on the part of the British resulted in “Dutch” becoming synonymous with such unappealing qualities as cowardice and stinginess.

Today, even while most prejudice towards our friends in the Netherlands has long since vanished, a couple of contemporary examples might occasionally feel useful. A “Dtuch reckoning” is a bill that is presented without any detail and which only gets bigger if you question it, while a “Dutch feast” is one at which the host “gets drunk before the guests”.

Word Perfect, Etymological Entertainment for Every Day of the Year by Susie Dent

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