The Grammarphobia Blog

Dutch treats, part 2

Q: I caught only part of Pat’s discussion of “Dutch uncle” on WNYC, so I don’t know if she mentioned this. I grew up in rural Indiana in a German-American community where “Dutch uncle” referred to someone who told you something you needed to hear, but didn’t want to hear.

A: We had a blog entry a few years ago about the many “Dutch” expressions in English, but we left out a lot of them, including “Dutch uncle.” Thanks for giving us a chance to update the post.

Your explanation of “Dutch uncle” is pretty much the same as the definition in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang: “one who talks severely and critically, who lays down the law; usu. in the phr. talk like a Dutch uncle.”

Cassell’s dates the expression from the mid-19th century.

Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English concurs. It says that to talk to someone like a “Dutch uncle” (circa 1830) means “to lecture in a way didactic and heavy-handed, yet kindly meant for the person’s own good.”

Partridge says the phrase is a reference to “the Dutch reputation for extremely rigorous discipline.”

As we say in our earlier blog item, the Oxford English Dictionary traces the many derisive “Dutch” expressions in English to the rivalry and enmity between the English and the Dutch in the 17th century.

With apologies to the Dutch, here are a few more expressions, all from Cassell’s, Partridge, or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang:

“Dutch auction (or sale)”: one in which the price reductions are imaginary, or in which the starting price is outrageous.

“Dutch bargain”: a one-sided transaction or one arrived at while drinking.

“Dutch bath”: a cursory washing.  

“Dutch cap”: contraceptive device.

“do a Dutch”: go AWOL or desert.

“Dutch concert”: one in which everybody plays a different tune.

“Dutch courage”: it comes from a bottle.

“Dutch feast”: one in which the host is the first to get drunk.

“in Dutch”: in trouble.

“Dutch leave”: time off taken without permission.

“Dutch nightingale”: a frog.

“Dutch palate”: a coarse or crude sense of taste.

“Dutch reckoning”: a bill that gets higher the more one complains.

“Dutch widow”: a prostitute.

Again, our apologies to the Dutch, who we’re sure are exemplary people and a credit to their nation!

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.