Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, is it called “The Netherlands”, just “Netherlands” or is it “Holland”? And what does the Caribbean island nation of Aruba have to do with any of it?
Q: Okay, quick geography question this week.
A: Don’t we do words and stuff?
Q: Well, yes, it’s still wordy related.
A: Good then – what’s your question?
Q: If I’m in Amsterdam, what country am I in?
A: Are you riding a bicycle?
Q: Of course I’m riding a bicycle. But that’s not relevant.
A: So, what IS relevant?
Q: Well, I’ve heard it called “Holland” and I’ve heard it called “The Netherlands”. And they speak Dutch. So, I’m just a bit confused. Can you help?
A: Certainly. Country names can be tricky, because once you go beyond the countries where English is the official language (which doesn’t take long), we often see differences.
A: In English, we call it “Spain”, but in Spanish it’s “España”. You’ll find a similar thing with “Japan” and “Nippon”, or “Ireland” and “Éire”.
Q: So is that what’s happening with The Netherlands?
A: Kind of. By the way, the accepted English name is simply the “Netherlands” without a capitalised “The” in front.
Q: Are you sure?
A: As sure as these clogs are made of wood.
Q: But everyone includes “The” in front?
A: Yeah, it’s common – possibly because it’s often at the start of a sentence. Or possibly because the official English name since 1815 is actually “Kingdom of the Netherlands”.
Q: Oh okay, so I’m half right?
A: If that makes you happy. Just know that when competing in the Olympics, for example, they are simply “Netherlands”. You can put “the” in front – just don’t capitalise it.
Q: Why refer to these “nether” regions anyway? Is it because they spend so much time on bicycles?
A: Haha, nope. It’s actually from “Nederland” – the Dutch translation. “Neder” in Dutch means “down” or “low”. You may have heard of the Low Countries?
Q: Um, no.
A: The Low Countries (or Low Lands) is the name for a low-lying region of Europe that today includes Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. These three countries are also known politically as “Benelux”.
Q: I think they have eggs benelux on the menu at my local cafe…
A: It’s probably Benedict.
Q: No, it’s Karl actually. Lovely guy, great cafe.
A: Right, so “Netherlands” literally means “lower countries”.
Q: Countries? But it’s just ONE country isn’t it?
A: Historically not really, but in Europe today, yes. It is indeed one country made up of 12 provinces and lots of canals and windmills and tulips. But remember, this is a kingdom – and even today, it’s a kingdom that actually contains FOUR countries.
Q: Wait, what?
A: The kingdom comprises the European country of the Netherlands and also three Caribbean countries under Dutch rule – Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten. And don’t get us started on special municipalities.
Q: Okay, I won’t. So where does “Holland” come into all this?
A: “Holland” is a coastal region within the Netherlands. It was very important during the 17th and 18th centuries and today is split into North Holland and South Holland – they’re just two of the country’s 12 provinces.
Q: So “Holland” is really just a small part of the Netherlands?
A: That’s right. However, its importance as a region led to the whole country being known as “Holland” – even officially for a short time in the early 1800s.
Q: So, is that like how the United Kingdom is sometimes just referred to as “England”?
A: It’s exactly the same! There is a Latin term, pars pro toto (“a part taken for the whole”) – when a name for part of something is used to describe its entirety. “Holland” has been used as an alternative country name by both English and Dutch speakers for more than two centuries.
Q: So even Dutch people say “Holland” for the country?
A: Many do. The country’s main tourism site is even “holland.com”. However, as of 2020, it has been reported that the country is moving to standardise things to “Netherlands”.
Q: Actually, I think Karl serves my eggs with Holland sauce.
A: It’s Hollandaise sauce – which before the 20th century was indeed known as “Dutch sauce”, confirming its origin.
Q: So WHY exactly do we describe the people and the language… and even the sauce of the Netherlands as “Dutch”?
A: Good question. Its origin is Old German “diutsch” – meaning “of the common people”. Starting in the 1600s, the term came to refer solely to those “common people” from the Netherlands.
Q: Okay, but why are there so many “Dutch” things in English?
A: English colonial rivalry with their neighbouring low-lying high-flying explorers of the time led the English to use “Dutch” as synonymous with anything “not normal”. This included having “Dutch courage” (emboldened by drinking alcohol) in 1809 and “to go Dutch” (paying the bill separately) from 1887.
Q: It’s all double Dutch to me.
A: That’s from the late 1700s. As is “Dutch oven” – a robust baking pan, not to be confused with the more informal bed-related meaning.
Q: Not sure I’ve caught wind of that one.
Q: So to sum up, I should use the “Netherlands” as the official name of the European country? “Holland” is used informally but is becoming less common.
A: That’s right. And don’t forget, during the colonial heyday of the 17th century, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman named the Australian continent “New Holland” – a name that stuck around till the 1850s, when Indigenous people were still being referred to as “New Hollanders”.
Q: New Holland, New Holland, New Holland… Oi Oi Oi! Yeah nah, doesn’t quite work the same…
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