Why is splitting the tab and paying for yourself called Dutch?

Why is splitting the tab and paying for yourself called Dutch?

The idea of paying for yourself when out with friends being referred to as some expression including the word “Dutch,” seemingly incorrectly is often connected to the fact that for several centuries beginning in the 17th, the word Dutch had a negative connotation in English, variously meaning cheap, duplicitous, alcoholic, poor, treacherous, selfish or just plain wrong.

The derogatory usage of “Dutch” stems from animosity between the English and Dutch due to their competing positions as naval powers, which would ultimately erupt into full on wars, mostly fought at sea. It’s no surprise then that by the middle of the 17th century when war broke out, the English had come up with some choice derogatory expressions related to their rivals.

Specifically, by 1654, the first derogatory uses of Dutch began appearing in print, such as R. Whitlock’s Zworouia: “The contract is not (like Dutch Bargains) made in Drinke.” Soon, phrases such as Dutch palate (1687 meaning low class) and Dutch reckoning (1699 meaning poor accounting, particularly a bill that doesn’t include details and potentially becomes bigger if you question it) were also appearing.

That said, contrary to what is often said, none of this appears to have anything to do with the various “Dutch” expressions meaning to pay for one’s self.  In fact, the origin of this expression might even have little to do with what we think of today as “Dutch” at all.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, many German-speaking groups immigrated to the United States. For those that settled in Pennsylvania, they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch.  As to why these German-speaking people were called this in the first place, for some time in English, High Dutch generally referred to people from parts of German and nearby mountainous regions and Low Dutch got applied to people from the Netherlands, at the time with these regions part of the Holy Roman Empire. Even after they gained their respective independence, the naming scheme still stuck around for a while in certain places, like America.

In the United States, it would seem that the Pennsylvania Dutch had a reputation for never owing anyone anything to the point that, even with a group of friends in a tavern, the reputation was that each person would pay his own bill.

Whether this reputation is wholly accurate or not, in the United States, various phrases that included the word “Dutch” became synonymous with this characteristic and eventually different variations with the meaning began to appear in print, including: “Dutch treat” (1873), “Dutch lunch” (1897) and “go Dutch” (1914).

For instance, the earliest documented instance of the first of these line of expressions appeared in the Daily Democrat on June 27, 1873:

“If our temperance friends could institute what is called the “Dutch treat” into our saloons, each man paying his reckoning, it would be a long step towards reforming in drinking to excess.”

The next up was the “Dutch lunch,” with the first known instance appearing in the Fort Wayne Morning Journal on October 24, 1897,

“Perhaps you have a fatter pocketbook than some of the other fellows. I, for instance, can’t afford to buy two tickets every time I go. So some of the boys and I go on the “Dutch lunch” plan: everybody for himself.”

Interestingly, at the same time these expressions were taking on their figurative sense, they were also occasionally used literally, as in describing the food eaten by the Pennsylvania Dutch.  To wit, an 1894 newspaper report found by esteemed etymologist Michael Quinion of the truly phenomenal World Wise Words notes that a “Dutch supper,” should include rye bread, cabbage salad, Wienerwursts, and beer “consistently expressive of [the] vaterland.”

Given that this line of “Dutch X” expressions didn’t appear until the late 19th to early 20th centuries; they first appeared in the United States, rather than Britain; they seem in many cases to be referring to Pennsylvania Dutch; and they aren’t inherently derogatory, it’s thought by many etymologists that, contrary to what is often said, these expressions probably had nothing to do with the former lineup of derogatory “Dutch X” expressions invented by the British a couple centuries before.


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