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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Dutch rose

(n.) the flattened imprint of a hammer left around a nail

Man preparing to hammer a nail into timber

When you hit a nail with a hammer and leave a circular dint in the wood, that impression is called a Dutch rose.

Why? Well, let’s just say there’s some history here.

England and the Netherlands are both great seafaring nations. They’re also only 270 miles apart. Put two highly successful and highly competitive countries that close together and, well—things are going to get fraught.

For that reason, over the past nine centuries or so England and the Netherlands have gone to war on just about as many occasions as they could possibly manage. And for that reason, let’s just say the Dutch don’t do come out all too well in the English dictionary. Years of mutual belligerence made the Dutch something of a go-to punchline for jokes and quips in English—and some of the expressions sparked by this long period of animosity have survived in the language today.

So a Dutch auction, a term from the 1850s, is an auction at which a high opening price has to be lowered to attract the first bidder. Dutch courage, first recorded in 1814, is bravery only elicited with liquor. And double Dutch, dating from the 1870s, is a still-common expression used to denote nonsensical speech—a slight on how unintelligible the Dutch language would once have sounded to English speakers.

Likewise a Dutch bargain is a bargain that only benefits one side. A Dutch account is one constantly in the red, or one that defies any attempt to balance it. Among journalists, a Dutch lead is an eye-catching but deliberately untrue opening sentence, while a Dutch turn is a story that overshoots one column, and has to be awkwardly completed elsewhere below another story. In bowling, a Dutch two-hundred is a score of 200 made entirely of spares, with no strikes. Offering Dutch comfort is reminding someone going through a hard time that things could always be worse (in other words, offering no actual comfort whatsoever). And in nineteenth century slang, a Dutch wife was nothing more than a bolster cushion.

The expression Dutch rose likewise falls into this category of anti-Dutch sentiment: supposedly first recorded in the jargonish speech of the turn-of-the-century American art market, it refers to the damage done while hammering in a nail—presumably (given its apparent origins in the art world) while hanging up a canvas. Although never a particularly widely used expression, it’s nevertheless found its way into the language and into the dictionary, alongside a host of other similarly unkind terms.

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