English expressions with the word “Dutch”

English expressions with the word “Dutch”

The English language features many idioms and expressions with the word “Dutch” in them. Perhaps you've come across them during an English course, but what do they mean, and where did they come from? Let’s take a look at five different phrases.

Dutch courage

This is a phrase which pops up pretty often. It refers to drinking alcohol before doing something which may scare you, such as asking out that girl that you like. The alcohol gives you the courage to do something that you may not have dared to without it.

There are a few popular theories as to the etymology of this phrase and it cannot be said for sure which one is correct. One theory suggests that English soldiers took a liking to gin during the Anglo-Dutch war in the 17th century and thus “Dutch courage” was born.

It was during the Anglo-Dutch wars that phrases like this entered the English language as insults to the Dutch. Dutch courage could be another one of these insults, namely courage you get from drinking alcohol, which is not actually courage at all. It may be that “Dutch courage” was intended as an insult, but evolved into the meaning it has today because of the sailors who often drank it for its warming properties and bravery-inducing effect before a battle.

Double Dutch

Speak too fast or unintelligibly and people might say you are speaking “double Dutch”, meaning that you are talking nonsense. Again, this phrase is said to have originated during the Anglo-Dutch wars.

Back then “Dutch” was used as a collective term for both Germans and Hollanders. High Dutch referred to the German language. Low Dutch alluded to the language spoken in the Netherlands, a modern version of which you can learn today during a Dutch course. The term “double Dutch” is said to be synonymous with High Dutch and thus an insult to Germans.

Sailors used to coil ropes and those coiled anti-clockwise were referred to as roped coiled against the sun. Such use of language was often accompanied by the phrase “double Dutch”, perhaps insinuating that Dutch is a misshapen language. 

Double Dutch also refers to the skipping rope game in which two long ropes are turned in opposite directions simultaneously and one or more players participate. This game is played both for fun and competitively. Again, the origins of the name of this game are unclear. One theory claims that the activity was named “double Dutch” after child Dutch settlers who would sing a rhyme whilst playing the game, which non-Dutch speakers could not understand.

To go Dutch

This is a phrase you might hear after having shared a meal or drinks with someone. It doesn’t mean to literally turn into a Dutch person, it means to split the bill or only pay for your own food or drinks. This too may have originated in the 17th century, when the English language used “Dutch” as a derogatory term, and would have meant, to be stingy. However, there are many other theories as to where “to go Dutch” came from.

Another theory suggests that “going Dutch” comes from Dutch doors, which had two parts - nowadays a split door. Another origin could lie with the Pennsylvania Dutch; Germans who emigrated to America in the 17th and 18th century. This group of people also had a reputation for never owing each other anything and paying their own bills.

A Dutch uncle

Definitions of a “Dutch uncle” vary from someone who gives firm, benevolent advice to someone who issues frank or harsh comments. The origin of this phrase is unclear, but most seem to think that it also came about during the wars of the 17th and 18th century. Used as an insult, a “Dutch uncle” is the opposite of a typical friendly, caring uncle. Presumably, the phrase refers to the stern quality attributed to the Dutch.

To do a Dutch roll

A Dutch roll is not a type of sandwich, as may first spring to mind. It actually refers to a motion in an aircraft, namely a lateral asymmetric motion; a combination or continuous yawing and rolling oscillation. A “Dutch roll” often happens naturally due to directional stability. How this name came into being is unclear, but could likely have been borrowed from ice-skating, in which a similar motion is made.

The “Dutch roll” or “rolling on a heading” also refers to a rudder coordination manoeuvre taught to pilots to help them understand how much cross-control input they should maintain to keep the nose of the plane aligned when landing or taking off in a crosswind.

Another theory is that the term originates from the original design for Dutch ships, which had rounded bottoms and lacked a good keel. This made them roll more than other ships of the time, and could be the reason the term “Dutch roll” was coined, although there is little evidence for this.

Where do these expressions come from?

So, for almost all of these phrases the etymology is unclear, however, the war between Britain and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th century appears to be a recurring theme. Even if this is not the case, the other theories behind these common phrases are also entertaining.

What is your favourite English idiom containing the word “Dutch”?


Mina Solanki


Mina Solanki

Completed her Master's degree at the University of Groningen and worked as a translator before joining IamExpat. She loves to read and has a particular interest in Greek mythology. In...

Read more



Leave a comment

Zuza Gruszczyńska 16:40 | 9 November 2017

You've got a mistake in the last paragraph. "the war between Britain and the Netherlands in the 16th and 27th century"

minasolanki 16:43 | 9 November 2017

Thanks Zuza! I've corrected it. Have a nice day.