Why it takes Dutch courage to play Russian roulette
Geographical idioms keep us dreaming of distant places
Whether your December holiday takes you to some far-flung shore, or you go the local route, it’s that quarter of the year when we start to use our downtime to dream about being far away. Below are some geographical idioms, well established in the English language, to help you describe your travel fantasies:
The best theory behind this expression refers to the supposed use of Jenever (a type of gin) by 17th century Dutch troops, who fought alongside the English during the 30 Years War.
Britain and The Netherlands were both allies and colonial rivals during this period, while a Dutchman, William of Orange, became king of England in 1689, and these connections can be seen in other common phrases. Going Dutch, or a “Dutch treat”, which refers to the even splitting of a bill, may be a reference to a Dutch door, which is divided horizontally halfway down, but could simply be a derisive term borne out of our colonial rivalry. It’s hardly chivalrous, of course, not to offer to pay the whole bill.
Other insulting idioms from the era include some still in use, such as Double Dutch (for incomprehensible nonsense) and Dutch uncle (a harsh and unindulgent person), and many others that are obsolete, like Dutch widow (a prostitute), Dutch gold (a cheap alloy resembling gold), Dutch concert (drunken uproar), and Dutch nightingale (a frog).
A recurring theme in cinema (the conclusion to Reservoir Dogs being a prime example) this expression dates back to the 19th century, and is possibly a result of real experiences during the Mexican–American War or in gunfights with post-war Mexican bandits. It may, however, like the Dutch idioms above, simply be a derogatory term, like “Mexican breakfast” (which refers to a cigarette and a coffee). Mexican wave
There is disagreement regarding the origins of the wave itself, with suggestions that it first appeared at US sporting events during the late 1970s. Krazy George Henderson, however, a professional cheerleader, led the first video documentation of one, on October 15 1981, at a Major League Baseball game in Oakland, California.
We call it a Mexican wave because of its widespread use at the 1986 Fifa World Cup in Mexico, which was shown to a global audience.
While the Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, in his novella The Fatalist, describes a character firing a gun containing an unknown number of bullets at his own head, and surviving, the phrase Russian roulette isn’t actually used. Its earliest known use is in a 1937 short story (called Russian Roulette) by Georges Surdez, published in Collier’s magazine.
The version he describes, practised by Russian soldiers, is even deadlier than the one most people think of today – it uses a gun with five of the six chambers loaded, rather than just one.
This game, in which whispered messages are passed around a group, gets its name from the general perception that the Chinese language is particularly hard to understand and decipher – in a similar vein to the phrase “It’s all Greek to me”. Until the 20th century it was better known as Russian scandal.
The practice of painfully twisting the skin is not, as far as we can tell, an accepted move in any form of Chinese martial arts. Calling it a Chinese burn, as schoolchildren have done for decades, would appear to simply be a novel and exotic name for a devious prank. In North America, it’s better known as an Indian burn.
This probably comes not from British colonial India, but from the American Midwest, where warm weather in the autumn is common, and Native Americans would take advantage of it to hunt and stock up on food for winter.
In 1778, a French American, St John de Crevecoeur, wrote: “Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness.”
To leave a social gathering without saying farewell. A great tactic, and it has been suggested that the origins of the phrase date back to the Irish Potato Famine (1845-52), when millions fled the country for the New World. Others, however, claim it is linked to the stereotype of the Irish being heavy drinkers.
No one really knows, and the practice has other names, including the French leave, which dates back to 1771, according to Oxford English Dictionary (OED). “He stole away an Irishman's bride, and took a French leave of me and his master,” wrote Tobias Smollett in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.
Luck of the Irish
According to Edward T O’Donnell, author of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History: “During the gold and silver rush years in the second half of the 19th century, a number of the most famous and successful miners were of Irish and Irish American birth.
“Of course, it carried with it a certain tone of derision, as if to say, only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains, could these fools succeed.”
The amorous reputation of the French is to blame for this idiom, which came into use at the start of the 20th century. And the French (who call it un baiser amoureux, meaning “a lover's kiss”) certainly didn’t invent it – there are mentions of open-mouthed kissing in Sanskrit texts dating back to 1,500BC. Furthermore, it was once known as a “Florentine kiss”.
French appears in several other phrases, most of them uncomplimentary. Such as a French letter (a condom), pardon my French (to apologise for swearing) and the French disease (syphilis).
When in Rome
The oldest saying on the list. St Ambrose is attributed with the phrase “if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there”.
A truncated version remains in use 1,600 years later.
- © The Daily Telegraph