The French and the Dutch: Our Popular Neighbours! (Advanced)

The French and the Dutch: Our Popular Neighbours!

Germany_GB_FranceScouts: "entente cordiale"

ScoutsScouts: "entente cordiale"

Neighbours inspire rivalry and jealousy. Although we hear that "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence", historically, (and some would argue, even today), the English have tended to disparage their neighbours. This has meant that the English language has acquired a number of less than complimentary idioms and expressions belittling our continental rivals, with the main targets being the French and the Dutch. Of course, we like to spread the disdain, so you may hear derision aimed at the Irish, Scots, Germans and Americans amongst others too!    

The rivalry with the French stems from centuries of Anglo-French distrust. The French speaking Normans invaded England in 1066 and became Kings of England. The language of the aristocracy for the next few centuries was indisputably French. The high status of French changed in the years of the Hundred Years War between England and France (1337-1453). The French were now the enemy, and the English took pride in their own separate culture, with the monarchy adopting the English language for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Yet, by the end of the Hundred Years War, England had lost all its French possessions, bar Calais. From this time on, war between the two countries was more infrequent, but still fairly common.

Wars were fought to establish or preserve a balance of power, rivalries over colonial expansion were often bitter and the distrust between the two nations endured until the "entente cordiale" at the start of the twentieth century. The Germans were quick to mock the new-found friendship between Britain and France, as the poster above left depicts. It shows an Englishman with a French prostitute behind the righteous back of the German soldier. Although the "entente cordiale" has lasted, the language has been slower to change, and many of the stereotypes illustrated by the "French" expressions have lingered on.  


"John Bull in Paris" or "English Guineas for French Pleasure""John Bull in Paris" or "English Guineas for French Pleasure"

The idea of the French having looser morals is a feature of many of the English expressions involving the French.

The painting on the left is a caricature of the ill-fated Treaty of Amiens (1802), which was supposed to provide a definitive peace between the English and French.

Peace lasted only a year before the Napoleonic wars resumed. As is clearly illustrated, the English at the time had little regard for the French and considered them to be sexually promiscuous. Syphilis is known as "the French disease", and a condom is known as a "French letter".

A "French kiss" is a kiss with tongues and the English have long been obsessed with French maids, some of whom may be wearing French knickers. This style of lingerie is said to derive from the knickers worn by can-can dancers in the Moulin Rouge and similar night spots.     


Can-can at the Moulin Rouge

There is definitely a sense of envy in the English phrases about the French. It is true that the French are immoral, but what good fun they are having! It seems we are jealous of the "Frogs" (possibly a reference to the fact that "frogs legs" is a French dish).

Other expressions mock the perceived French lack of courage. From the 18th century, if you "take French leave", you desert or are absent without leave from the army.

English also has the expression "Pardon my French" to apologise for swearing. Obviously such uncouth language could never be real English!

Obviously, we did have some favourable ideas about our cross-channel neighbours, particularly with their advanced methods of preparing food and drink, and we have borrowed heavily from French in this sphere.

The place where the English cook has stayed resolutely a "kitchen", but the way in which we cook is the French "cuisine". Even so, there are few complimentary idioms about the French!    



French MaidFrench maid

Yet, it is certainly not all one way. The English to the French are "les rosbifs", due to the English predilection for roast beef and the idea that it is the one dish that the English can manage to cook. Many of the terms labelled as "French" by the English are known as "English" to the French.

Syphilis for example is the "English disease", "la maladie anglaise".  A French letter is either a "redingote d' Angleterre" - an "English overcoat" or a "capote anglaise" - "English cloak". The French also eventually retaliated to the "taking French leave" jibe. At the end of the 19th century, the French began to use the expression "filer á l'anglaise" to mean the same thing.

Interestingly, the allies of the English in the Napoleonic Wars are similarly acerbic about the French fighting man. So we have Germans (Austrians) with "französischen Abschied nehmen", Portuguese with "saída à francesa" and Spanish with "despedida a la francesa" allsaying that the deserters leave "French style". However, the Italians and many Eastern Europeans cite the English as cowardly and leaving "English style". There is "andarsene all'inglese" (Italian), "wyjść po angielsku" (Polish) and "zmizet po anglicku" (Czech), amongst others.

The French also consider the English to be treacherous and untrustworthy. The phrase "la perfide Angleterre", often translated as "perfidious Albion" (deceitful England) has been in use for hundreds of years.  

While the French have certainly not been favoured in the English language, it is the Dutch who have suffered the most in unflattering idioms and expressions which paint a negative picture of their national character. The Dutch are cited as stingy, drunken, cowardly, suicidal and simply wrong in a number of expressions.

But why the Dutch? They are near neighbours, but other nations do not receive half as much abuse. And in reality, the Dutch are considered inoffensive and quite popular in Britain and abroad.


So where do such terms come from?  


256px-Heerman_Witmont_-_Action_between_Dutch_and_English_Ships_-_WGA25795Heerman Witmont: Action Between Dutch and English ShipsThe seventeenth century saw the Dutch as one of the strongest nations in the world. They had built up a vast colonial empire in South-East Asia and the Americas through the Dutch East Indies and Dutch West Indies companies respectively. They had become a threat to English (and later British) commercial interests.

In North America, the town of Nieuw Amsterdam (later to become New York) and other Dutch settlements were growing rapidly and in the East Indies, the Dutch had supplanted the Portuguese as the major trading nation. The English, who had helped to foment the Dutch Revolt to liberate the Dutch from their Spanish overlords and then fought a war with Spain as a consequence, were enraged that the Dutch were not more grateful and had had the temerity to rival and then surpass them as masters of the shipping lanes.

From 1652 to 1674, there were three wars between the two countries. In America, the English took over New Netherland and control of the Dutch North American colonies but the Dutch came out on top in Europe, becoming the 17th century's foremost maritime state. It was at this time that the plethora of expressions denigrating the Dutch appeared, although there is some evidence that the Dutch had been the butt of English jokes before that.

Shakespeare for example in his character of Sir John Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor describes himself being covered in grease, like a Dutch dish only fit to be thrown into the Thames:    

And in the height of this bath, when I was more than 

half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be 

thrown into the Thames  

                                                                                        (Merry Wives of Windsor: Act 3, Scene 5)  


400px-Dutch_flagThe flag of the Netherlands

Dutch cuisine is further mocked in the expression a "Dutch steak", which turns out to be a hamburger.

In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Dutch barely eat at all, with so many expressions alluding to their drinking habits. A "Dutch feast" is one in which the host gets drunk before the guests, or even before they arrive at the party! A "Dutch concert" is a rowdy piss-up with a lot of noise and drinking. "Dutch cheer" is alcohol in general, and "Dutch milk" is beer! After a "Dutch concert", the party-goers may suffer a "Dutch headache", namely, a hangover. The famous "Dutch courage" only occurs after enough alcohol has been drunk to inspire temporary bravery.

Often the consumption of food and drink is combined with the fabled stinginess of the Dutch, so-called "Dutch generosity", which rivals even that of the Scots in English idioms. A "Dutch treat" or a "Dutch party" happens when the guests bring their own food and drink. The common expression to "go Dutch" means to split the bill, but has its origin in the Dutch being too mean to pay for their dates to eat and drink. A "Dutch bargain" is a one-sided deal, often conducted during a drinking session, which is only of benefit to one of the parties involved.    

As with the French, the Dutch find themselves the target of English scorn but also prurience when it comes to sex. A "Dutch cap" is the contraceptive device known as a diaphragm, while a "Dutch widow" is a prostitute. A "Dutch bride" is a sex doll, while a "Dutch husband" sometimes known as a  "Dutch wife" is a long body pillow or bolster which is placed between the legs of the sleeper in bed to soak up sweat and increase air flow on hot nights. Here the inactivity of the pillow is being compared to the sexual prowess of the husband or wife! The Netherlands is famed for its flatness and lack of mountains, and the term "Dutch Alps" is used mockingly as a term for small breasts.  

There are other phrases similar to "Dutch generosity" which are the opposite of what they purport to be. For example, "Dutch praise" is condemnation, severe criticism. "Dutch comfort" is very similar to "cold comfort", that is, no real comfort at all. "Dutch gold" isn't worth much as it is a cheap imitation, usually brass. Uncles are generally supposed to be avuncular - kind and genial. However, if someone speaks to you like a "Dutch uncle", then they give you stern admonishments and/or a harsh lecture. A "Dutch auction" is also the wrong way round. In contrast to a British auction, the Dutch auctioneer starts off with an exorbitant price which is then slowly lowered until someone makes a bid - another example of Dutch contrariness. One more derogatory idiom is "to take the Dutch route", also known as "Dutch act" or "Dutch cure". All of these phrases have been used to describe the act of committing suicide.  

When declaring the validity of your statement, if you finish it with "or I'm a Dutchman", it shows total confidence in what you are saying, as in "John can eat eight Mr Kipling French Fancies cakes in three minutes flat, or I'm a Dutchman". If you were in fact a Dutchman, it would be the ultimate disgrace, so the speaker needs to be absolutely certain of the truth of his assertion, here of John's capacity for gluttony.

If you speak nonsense or incomprehensible gibberish, you are said to be speaking "double Dutch", and so cannot be understood. This expression relates to the supposed impossibility for foreigners to understand the Dutch language, a tongue which was considered to be guttural and unattractive, like a "Dutch nightingale", more commonly known as a frog! On the same wavelength is a "Dutch cough" which you should avoid emitting in polite company, as a Dutch cough is actually a fart. This may lead to a "Dutch exit", which happens when a person farts just before leaving a room or a lift. Charming!  

Although some of the above phrases are no longer commonly used, many of them are still in everyday usage, and despite the fact that antipathy towards the Dutch has long since ceased, these phrases remain in the language.

In the exercise below, fill in the gaps with one of the highlighted "French" or "Dutch" idioms from the paragraphs above.

All of these expressions remain in current use. Hover your mouse over the gaps (tap on mobiles) to reveal the answers.


1.    Henry faced a court martial for leaving his squadron and __________questionmark__________. He has been accused of desertion.

2.    "I can't believe it. Look it's Elvis Presley!" "If that's Elvis, then __________questionmark__________," said Georgia, unimpressed by the rotund Elvis impersonator.

3.    "Mrs Reilly is a bit of a dragon. I'm going to have a glass of whisky before my meeting with her, to summon up a bit of _________questionmark__________."

4.    "__________questionmark__________", Bob said remorsefully upon noticing that his boss was unimpressed with his swearing.

5.    Mr Sparrow chided me like a __________questionmark__________ for handing in my homework late.

6.    "This party is boring. Let's find the drinks cupboard to add a bit of _________questionmark___________."

7.    Although it is customary for the man to pay on a first date, nowadays most couples __________questionmark__________ when eating out in a restaurant.

8.    When punks David and Mandy got their tongues pierced, they said that their __________questionmark___________ made their relationship magnetic!

9.    "I can't understand a word of what he is saying. Is that English? It's _________questionmark___________ to me."

10.  When Clyde said there would be a picnic, we were all quite excited until he told us we would have to bring our own food. It was a real _________questionmark___________.    





Bibliography Flavell: Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins London, Kyle Cathie Ltd 1992 Douglas, Peter: "Dissing the Dutch: All's Fair in Love and War" New Netherland Institute (online)     Scouts - entente cordiale: Agence Rol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Germany, Britain, France: By Karikatur-album, C. E. Jensen, 1906. Signed "Bernard Partridge". derivative work: Moose2 (Germany_GB_France.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons John Bull in Paris: By British Cartoon Prints Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Moulin Rouge - can-can: By Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons French maid: By Diegoeromano (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Dutch and English ships in action: Heerman Witmont (circa 1605–1683) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Dutch flag: Licensed underCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.

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