March 27, 2008

"Dutch Uncle"

Stupid Question ™
Aug. 31, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: It is positive or negative to be called a “Dutch uncle”?

A: If you’re from Holland and have a nephew, you have nothing to worry about.

But if you’re referring to the English phrase, I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative, because its meaning appears to be in transition.

Dictionary definitions generally agree that a “Dutch uncle” is someone who gives you blunt criticism.

But they vary widely and subtly in specifics. Is a Dutch uncle “brutally frank” or “firm but kindly”? Is he “someone not your uncle who gives you advice as though he was,” or merely “someone close enough to speak directly”?

One certainty is that the phrase is part of a series of “Dutch” slurs, which also include “Dutch treat” (everybody pays) and “Dutch courage” (drunken bragging). Such terms got their start in the 1600s, during trade tensions between England and the Netherlands.

But they got new life in 1800s America as jokes about German immigrants, because “Dutch” was confused with “Deutsch,” which is German for “German.”

(So you can keep this straight: “Deutsch” is an old German term for the German language, as distinct from Latin; like “English,” it soon became a word for the people themselves. The English spelled “Deutsch” as “Dutch,” and for a couple centuries used it as a term for Germans, which at the time also included the people of the Netherlands. When the Netherlands became independent in the 1600s, the English narrowed their meaning of “Dutch” to include Netherlanders only. But Germans and Netherlanders alike continued to call themselves “Deutsch.”)

That’s where “Dutch uncle” comes from—it’s of US origin and the first citation dates to 1837.

The “Dutch” slurs often meant little more than “foreign and stupid,” like Polish jokes. They all worked by using “Dutch” to indicate a reversal of common practice: in a “Dutch treat,” there was no treat; in a “Dutch auction,” the bidding amount was reduced until someone bid the lowest possible amount.

So we would expect that a “Dutch uncle” is the opposite of a regular uncle. And in US tradition, an uncle is kindly and indulgent.

With this background, it’s pretty clear to me that “Dutch uncle” was originally a negative term. Still, it all depends on what you think of harsh advice.

Some etymologists, especially those who take a more positive reading of the phrase, have “discovered” different origins for the term.

They suggest that it comes from a supposed Dutch (German?) reputation for strict discipline—and that it reinforces an already harsh meaning of uncle, based on Roman traditions of uncles being strict.

As etymologies, these are garbage. But the meaning of a phrase can stray far from its origins, and these fanciful etymologies tell us that meaning is changing.

That’s not surprising when you consider that people have widely varying feelings about uncles and harsh advice, and that very few people equate “Dutch” with German anymore.

My blunt advice: Pay attention to the context. “Dutch uncle” is as positive or negative as its user intends it to be.

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