Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wordsmith: The Etymology of "Dutch Uncle"

“Who do you think you are? My Dutch uncle?”
-Jimmy Durante

Ever been on the receiving end of a stern talking-to? Ever gotten a talking-to so stern as to prompt an elderly onlooker to remark, “He really talked to you like a Dutch uncle, little lady”? Indeed, the expression ‘Dutch uncle’, meaning one who admonishes harshly, rises only seldomly from the depths of the mature chap’s learned vocabulary, usually to the befuddlement of nearby youths.

The term, typically used in simile, first appeared in Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Massacre at Paris (c. 1590s), as a veiled reference to his real maternal uncle, Edwyn Gareth, who was actually Welsh. The English had begun to compete with the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish for land and spices as the Age of Exploration dawned. By the 1590s, the Spanish Armada had already failed, so the English turned their attention and hatred toward the Low Countries due to geographical proximity. With the time ripe for literary wordplay drawing from the rivalry (e.g., ‘Ottoman greeting’ for a surprise murder, ‘Mexican pizza’ for second-rate tortilla sandwiches, and other surviving examples with later historical roots), Marlowe seized the opportunity to take a jab at his uncle that he could hide under historical pretext.

In the play, the Catholic Duc de Guise—himself a caricature of cruel persona with artificial ties to foreign power due to the Catholic-Anglican rivalry—enlists the political alliance of his fictional uncle, Duke Philip of Orange, in quashing the Huguenot uprising. Phillip cuts an austere figure as Guise’s adviser, cautioning him harshly and questioning him rigorously at every turn until Guise becomes frustrated and orders the massacre of his adversaries against Philip’s advice, eventually blaming “the pressures and sorrows/by my Dutch uncle bestowed” for his frame of mind. How Gareth affronted Marlowe enough to warrant such literary treatment remains as mysterious as the circumstances surrounding Marlowe’s own death at 29. ‘Dutch treat’ also comes from this time period. Incidentally, the phrase ‘een engelse koningin’ (an English queen) also survives in modern Dutch, referring to spinsters.


  1. ADM I totally heard Vin Scully say "Dutch uncle" a few weeks ago!

  2. Double ADM! Duke Philip of Orange is my favorite in the William of Orange bloodline.