Dutch Influences on the English Language

The influences of the English language on other world languages are many and varied. It seems to seep its way into other languages, including Dutch, in a lot of surprising and unexpected ways — though really it makes sense, given the geo-political climate of the last couple of centuries.

But did you know that the Dutch language has also left its distinct marks on the English language through the years?

It never really occurred to me, of course, until I picked up Dutch as my second language; however, I believe there are several distinct vestigial traces of Dutch in contemporary English phraseology. Take, for instance, the word “Boss.” Did you know that no other language had developed a word for a person in a position of authority, which could also be used as a form of address, until the Dutch came up with the word “Baas?” It seems so natural now; but if it weren’t for the Dutch, we’d probably all be referring to our bosses as “Sir”, or “Madam,” or “my supervisor” instead of using the handy, efficient, somewhat informal word “boss” — which can be used both as a descriptive noun (i.e. “This is my boss, Joe”) and as a direct form of address (i.e. “Hiya, Boss, do you think you could sign these forms for me?”). We have the Dutch to thank for this linguistic legacy.

Another phrase that I’ve often wondered about (though I don’t have any real etymological research to back me up on this one) is the phrase: “That may well be,” or “That may very well be true.” Think about that from the vantage point of the English language, would you? What does that word “well” actually mean? It’s not being used in the classic sense meaning “in a good and satisfactory manner” (i.e. “business is going well”). Is it? I don’t think so. Actually, in this sentence construction, it seems that the word “well” is being used more as an affirmative intensifier. Just like the Dutch use the word “wel.” The phrase “That may well be” is something of an anomaly in the English language — but in Dutch, “Dat zou wel waar kunnen zijn” is totally in keeping with the way that the word “wel” is used in other contexts: to affirm and accentuate something that is true. A bit like the English word “really,” but then again not so much. It’s a unique construction of the Dutch language. And I believe that it’s somehow managed to survive in the English language through the years.

I think I could also make a case for words like “young’un” or “Yankees” — and of course many other proper names (particularly from New York) like “Brooklyn,” “Staten Island,” and “Harlem.” All of these words, I believe (and probably many others), have their roots in the Dutch language. It’s pretty remarkable for a language with only about 20 million speakers worldwide, whose hey-day was 400 years ago.

In view of the evidence, I think we English-speakers may well need to pay some respect the bosses of employment terminology etymology: the Dutch.

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