The Warlike Origins of 'Going Dutch'

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At the end of a restaurant meal, deciding who pays and how much can be fraught. Societal norms tend to dictate if one person whips out their credit card, or if everyone should "go Dutch": that is, pay their own share.

"Going Dutch" can quickly get complicated, with adding up tax, tip, and separate bills. But the origin of the term is even more complex: It likely stems from a centuries-old dispute between England and the Netherlands that left behind a slew of uncomplimentary phrases in English, all rooted in the word "Dutch."

In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic and the English competed over international trade, colonies, and domination of the seas. Starting in 1652, the Dutch and English fought three wars over the next 22 years, battling over everything from herring to current-day New York. Propaganda meant that relations soured quickly, and both the English and the Dutch considered plagues and fires in the other country to be a punishment from God.

Name-calling became common in pamphlets and woodcuts. The Dutch claimed that the English were descended from the Devil himself, and therefore had tails. The English retaliated by calling the Dutch "butterboxes" and drunkards. The enmity lingered, even as the wars became less frequent. In the following centuries, the word "Dutch" in the English language eventually came to describe anything sub-par.

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The insults came fast and thick. Dutch soldiers, according to the English, needed "Dutch courage," or alcohol-fueled bravado, to fight. A "Dutch uncle" was a stern and authoritative figure, not a kindly uncle. "Dutch feasts" were parties where the host got drunk first, while a "Dutch reckoning" was an unitemized bill with unexpected charges. "Dutch comfort" was the small consolation that a bad situation wasn't worse.

In essence, writes Peter Douglas of the New Netherland Institute, "Dutch" implied anything opposite or inferior to the way it should have been, and often the term was used for everything from crude insults to possibly even cookware. The Dutch oven, a lidded pot that can be used for baking, may or may not be part of this trend: It's not truly an oven, but the Dutch may have simply been good at producing them.

"To go Dutch," though, is an all-American term. As Jonathan Milder writes in Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl, one of the first scornful references to a "Dutch treat"—that is, not really treating someone else at all—appears in a New York Times article from 1877. The term coincides with what Milder calls "the centuries-old British sport of mocking the Dutch," but can also be a reference to the contemporary German-American habit of everyone buying their own drink (Dutch being a confused reference to Deutsch, or "German").

Naturally, the disparaging use of the word "Dutch" had consequences. As recently as 1934, writes Milder, the Dutch government issued orders for officials to avoid using the term "Dutch" to dodge the stigma. However, most "Dutch" terminology seems fairly old-fashioned today. It's a fitting fate for a linguistic practice based on centuries-old hatred.