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Going Dutch: English words of Dutch origin

An extract from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

Is your boss a bit gruff? Maybe he is given to snooping–you probably wish he would go for a cruise on his yacht, maybe to the Netherlands, where all of these words come from. The English and Dutch languages are closely related, and despite three 17th-century naval conflicts Britain and the Netherlands have long been connected.

The ‘boss’ of all Dutch words is boss, which is from baas ‘master’. It started life in the USA at the beginning of the 19th century, and when it arrived in Britain was restricted to workmen’s slang. If the boss is addicted to snooping he is now spying, but originally he would be stealing tasty items of food and eating them on the sly–the meaning of the Dutch source snoepen, and the first English use.

Booze is a Dutch word, and so are two of our most popular alcoholic drinks. The full name for brandy was originally brandy wine, a term that entered English in the early 17th century from Dutch brandewijn, literally ‘burnt wine’. ‘Burning’ referred to the heating of low-strength alcohol over a fire so that the alcohol was given off as a vapour that condensed as brandy. Gin is flavoured with juniper berries, and was traditionally made in the Netherlands. In the early 18th century the word was spelled genever or geneva, which came via Dutch from Old French genevre ‘juniper’. To avoid confusion with Geneva in Switzerland the drink was sometimes called Hollands Geneva or just Hollands.

Many words to do with the sea and sailing came the short distance across the North Sea to Britain, most of them in the 17th century. The source of cruise was probably Dutch kruisen ‘to cross’, which is related to ‘cross’ itself. The names of the corvette, the sloop, the smack, and the yacht are all Dutch: the last of these is from jaghte ‘light sailing vessel’, which was derived from jaghtschipp ‘fast pirate ship’.

Words for items of food that have entered the English language from Dutch include coleslaw, literally ‘cabbage salad’, cookie, and gherkin. In Dutch a cookie was koekje, or ‘little cake’, which was its meaning when it first appeared in Scotland in the 1750s.

In English frolic first meant ‘playful, happy’ when it entered the language in the early 16th century from Dutch vrolijk. A less cheerful word is gruff, originally meaning ‘coarse’. Like cookie it started life in Scotland rather than England, in the late 15th century. In Dutch a bumpkin is either ‘a little tree’ or ‘a little barrel’–either way, it probably referred to the ungainly figure of a short, stout countryman.


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