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What is Dutch Courage?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 16 March 2014
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Dutch courage is slang term that has fallen out of use in many cultures. It is essentially courage obtained by imbibing alcoholic drinks. There is something to be said for such courage. Alcohol may reduce inhibitions and make people less likely to be fearful in difficult circumstances. However, too much alcohol simply makes people stupid and certainly won’t help in situations where a clear head is needed as much as bravery.

There are numerous explanations of why or how the phrase Dutch courage evolved. This idiom is thought to have arisen in England and been one used to express the very serious distaste people had for those who lived in the Netherlands. There are many negative phrases originating from England and then the colonized Americas about the Dutch, and for many years several centuries back, enmity between England and the Netherlands ran very deep.

Part of the anger between these two countries came from the dispute surrounding who would control the seas, trading, and the colonization of the new world. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch and the British fought four wars, called the Anglo-Dutch Wars. English soldiers may have evolved the phrase Dutch courage to dispute the bravery of their foes. In this sense the term is a racist slur suggesting that the Dutch would only show up for wars if they were drunk.

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A kinder explanation also emerges from the 17th century. When England was in the grip of the Bubonic Plague, only the Dutch would deliver supplies to England. However there are accounts that they would do so after getting drunk. This might have been to create courage or to potentially minimize chances of contracting the disease.

Another potential origin for the term Dutch courage may have to do with the fact that the Dutch invented gin. The drinking of gin became problematic in England in the 18th century. This prompted England to enact laws tightening restrictions on who could sell or purchase gin. It’s unclear why the invention of gin is linked to Dutch courage, since it usually has to do with bravery or lack thereof, except for the fact that the Dutch created gin.

Most of the origin stories for Dutch courage have at their heart racial and national prejudice, and unfortunately there are many terms that slight the people of the Netherlands. Dutch treat means people pay for their own food, and a Dutch uncle is one who lectures too much. In the modern sense, as need for global understanding becomes ever more important, these terms are outdated. They represent enmity of the past that no longer exists and continued racial discrimination.

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