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Dutchman’s Breeches

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 19, 2011

There’s a pretty little woodland plant with pinkish, double-spurred flowers that’s found in the Eastern United States called Dicentra cucullaria.  It’s also known colloquially as the Dutchman’s Breeches.  Oddly enough, however, whenever there are two patches of blue that appear in the middle of a stormy sky, leaving the impression that the storm is about to break, that’s also referred to as the Dutchman’s Breeches.

The expression is part of traditional sea-going weather lore where it’s believed that in bad weather, two patches of blue sky is a hopeful sign as long as the patches are big enough to “mend a pair of Dutchman’s breeches.”  Back in the day, sailors wore wide trousers, and Dutch sailors were known to wear even wider trousers which just happened to be blue like the the sky on a clear day.

The expression has fallen out of favour over the past couple of generations but back on October 20, 1935 the Hartford Courant used the expression in a news story entitled, “A Patch Of Blue Sky.”  It spoke of the international crisis that was looming at every turn and how Great Britain had recently refused to remove a ship from the Mediterranean while Italy was rushing troops to the border of Libya.  In the article, the following was included:

Will the patch of blue sky above be us; large as a Dutchman’s breeches and a sign of fair weather to come?

On February 3, 1900 the Dubuque Daily Herald ran an article entitled, “Winter Six Weeks More: Famous Ground Hog Saw His Shadow at 12 O’Clock To-day.”  The story felt compelled to include a number of old superstition weather proverbs which included this one:

When there is enough clear sky to patch a Dutchman’s breeches expect fair weather.

A couple of year prior to that news story, the New York Times published an article on June 6, 1897 entitled, “Names Of The Clouds.”  What’s particularly interesting is that the expression Dutchman’s breeches is referred to as an old saw. 

The strato-cumulus clouds were formerly designated with the words combined in the inverse order, and the name, with its abbreviation s-cu, is bestowed upon large globular masses or rolls of dark cloud frequently covering the whole sky.  They are especially noticable in Winter, and occasionally give the sky a wavy appearance.  It is not a very thick layer of cloud, and occasionally blue patches of sky are visible through the intervening spaces.  The old saw is that when there is enough blue sky to make a pair of Dutchman’s breeches, the following day will surely be a pleasant one.

As a side note, the expression “old saw” refers to a proverb and that expression (old saw) dates back to some time in the 1400s.  So if a journalist in the 1890s referred to the expression Dutchman’s breeches as an old saw, it means it goes back farther than the 1890s.

The expression is found in the book “Reading The Weather” written by T. Morris Longstreth and published in 1915.  He dedicated the book to his grandmother, Mary Gibson Haldeman.  The author credits his grandmother for passing along the proverbs which puts the expression at least to the early 1800s.

In Idiomation’s research, however, it was learned that the expression dates back to the Anglo-Dutch naval wars of the 17th century.  And so this all-but-forgotten, four-hundred-year-old conflict is enshrined for all time in the passionate dislike the English had for the Dutch back in the day.

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