Word Bites — Why are people of the Netherlands called Dutch?

As we have covered before in the segment on the demonym “Soton” to refer to people in Southampton, there are many weird and interesting demonyms around the world. So today, we will take a look at an interesting etymology behind yet another demonym, this time, used to refer to residents residing in the Netherlands.

Sometimes, demonyms follow a rather intuitive pattern — people from New Zealand are called New Zealanders (although colloquially, the term Kiwi may be used), people from Iceland are called Icelanders, and people from Somaliland can be referred to as Somalilanders. Similarly, Irish are people from Ireland, and Polish are people from Poland. Yet, people from the Netherlands are curiously called Dutch, deviating from these two patterns mentioned here. So, why?

The word Dutch sounds extremely similar to the German word for German, Deutsch. Perhaps, Dutch would have an extremely Germanic origin.

And one would be correct. Reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European suggest that the origin root word was *teuta-, meaning “tribe”, and is seen in derivative words like “the Teutonic knights”. Moving down the evolutionary timeline, reconstructions of Proto-Germanic point towards the word *þiudiskaz, or Latinised into “Theodiscus”. This was a term used to refer to the West Germanic languages in the Early Middle Ages. Meaning “popular”, or “of the people”, Theodiscus gave rise to the Old Dutch word Dietsch, Old German word duitsch, and the Old English word þeodisc. These words had the same meaning, referring to “all of the common (Germanic) people”.

This is where we start to see something rather familiar. The word duitsch went through centuries of evolution to reach the German word for German we see today, Deutsch, and by extension, the German word for Germany, Deutschland.

The English word, however, changed its scope to focus on the West Germanic people the English had the most contact with, through trade, overseas territories, and geographical proximity. This people group came to be the Dutch. Since the 17th century, around the time when the Netherlands became a united independent state, the word Dutch caught on when referring to people from the Netherlands. And it has been so since.

However, with the formation of the Netherlands, brought along another meaning for the word “Dutch”. Rivalry in trade and colonisation has led to the English attaching a pejorative label to the word “Dutch” since around the dawn of the 17th century. This was used to refer to anything regarded by the English then as inferior, irregular, or contrary to the norm back then. Phrases often include the “Dutch treat”, coined in 1887, where each person pays for themself, “Dutch courage”, appearing in dictionaries since 1809, to mean “boldness inspired by intoxicating spirits”, and “Dutch talent”, a nautical term used since the 1860s, to mean any piece of work not done in shipshape style. This reflected a time when tensions between the English and the Dutch were high and strong.

But the Dutch did speak English so well, they could pick up and understand the negative or pejorative connotations the adjective “Dutch” had in English. In fact, in the 1930s, the government of the Netherlands ordered its officials to stop using the word “Dutch”, but to rephrase their statements in English such that they use the official word “the Netherlands”. This did not stop some of these phrases being used today, the more well-known one being “going Dutch”, to mean “to split the bill” or “to cover their own expenses”. These phrases might still cause offense today, although the pejorative label is likely dissipating.

Circling back, we find that in Dutch, the demonym for the Netherlands (translated as inwoneraanduiding or demoniem) is curiously, Nederlander. In fact, the word “Netherlands” literally means “lower lands”, referring to the low-lying geography of the Netherlands, a significant proportion of which lies at or below sea level. The demonym Nederlander would thus refer to the people inhabiting the low-lying lands. This falls right back into the rather intuitive pattern mentioned earlier, although not so in English. But anyway, this wraps this post for now, and perhaps we will take a look at more interesting demonyms down the road.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s