Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 30, 2011
When’s the last time you heard someone say they heard someone speaking double Dutch? Anyone who is accused of speaking double Dutch is being accused by the listener of speaking gibberish. Double Dutch also happens to be a jump rope game that uses two jump ropes swung simultaneously in opposite directions in a crisscross fashion.
In Chapter IX: Dr. Bauerstein in Agatha Christie’s book “The Mysterious Affair At Styles” written in 1916 and published by John Lane in the United States in October 1920 — published in the UK on January 1921 — the following conversation is written:
“You miss a lot. A really perfect bit of old china–it’s pure delight to handle it, or even to look at it.”
“Well, what am I to tell Poirot?”
“Tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s double Dutch to me.”
I was moving off towards the house again when he suddenly called me back.
“I say, what was the end of that message? Say it over again, will you?”
” ‘Find the extra coffee-cup, and you can rest in peace.’ Are you sure you don’t know what it means?”
I asked him earnestly.
He shook his head.
“No,” he said musingly, “I don’t. I — I wish I did.”
E.W. Hornung‘s book, “Raffles, Further Adventures Of The Amateur Cracksman” — which was also entitled “The Black Mask” in some countries — was published in 1899. In this book, the following passage is found:
“Ah,” said he, “that was before I knew you were altogether without experience; and I must say that I was surprised even at Mr. Maturin’s engaging you after that; but it will depend upon yourself how long I allow him to persist in so curious an experiment. As for what is the matter with him, my good fellow, it is no use my giving you an answer which would be double Dutch to you; moreover, I have still to test your discretionary powers. I may say, however, that that poor gentleman presents at once the most complex and most troublesome case, which is responsibility enough without certain features which make it all but insupportable. Beyond this I must refuse to discuss my patient for the present; but I shall certainly go up if I can find time.”
In the John Davis book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America” published in January 1803, the following exchange happens between the First-mate and Mr. Adams:
First-mate. – You lie! It was one of my countrymen, Madoc ap Owen Gwyneth; I can give you chapter and verse for it.
Madoc wyf mwydic ei wedd
Jawn genau Owen Gwynedd;
Ni fynnwn dir, fy awydd oedd
Na aa mawr ond y Moroedd.
Mr Adams. – What devil language is that? Is it double Dutch coiled against the sun?
First-mate. – It is Welch. It is what the full-breasted girls talk in the mountains. If the frigate don’t blow us out of the water, and this fair wind holds, I hope next month to be bowsing some of their jibs up. If they knew I was coming, they would give the Olive a tow.
By now, readers are possibly asking themselves why the English speak disparagingly about the Dutch language. The fact of the matter is that when William the Conqueror defeated the British at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he made French the official language among nobility and the upper classes. Up until that point, English and Dutch were dialects of the same language, sharing a basic Germanic vocabulary. When English was reinstated as the official language of Britain in the 14th century, generations of peasants had changed the language to such an extent that it no longer resembled Dutch.
To muddle things up more, some English words had become extinct, some Dutch words survived, and a large number of French words had infiltrated language in Britain in general. By the time the Dutch Golden Age arrived there were over 2,000 words of Dutch origin in the English language. And by the time the 16th century arrived, the word Dutch was an insult for anything the English regarded as inferior or contrary to English practice.
All this is why the English have referred to language they cannot understand as double Dutch. While there is some Dutch in the English language, when a listener cannot make heads or tails of the conversation and it has become incomprehensible to him, it’s as if there’s double the amount of Dutch in the conversation than what someone is used to hearing normally. This is what, in the opinion of the English of the 16th century, made the language inferior to English and so it is tagged as double Dutch by the listener.