English language learners, at least many of the students I have taught in Korea since I came here in 1990 are always looking for “English expressions/idioms” to spice up their language skills and “go native” as it were with colorful expressions. To be sure, whenever I have the chance I use these expressions in class or introduce them for a particular lesson.
Of these, to “go Dutch” is one of those English expressions which many students feel that if they use—and use a lot and correctly—will make them sound like a native speaker. This expression came up in class today (I was explaining the usage of “it’s on me” and “I’ll pick up the tab”) and some students asked me if I had ever used the expression to “go Dutch.” I couldn’t remember the last time I used it and not even sure if I have ever used it at all.
Just in case you’re curious about what the actual meaning of “go Dutch” means (and to save you the trouble of having to “Google” it, the expression “go Dutch,” also known as a “Dutch treat” or a “Dutch date,” simply means an informal agreement for each person to pay for his or her own expenses during a planned date or outing. To avoid any faus paux or confusion, the decision to “go Dutch” is usually made in advance.
Under certain social and financial circumstances, the idea to “go Dutch” allows larger groups of friends or co-workers to enjoy a night on the town without the worry of one host footing the entire bill. On the contrary, you probably wouldn’t want to “go Dutch” on a date. That would be a definite mood killer and perhaps ruin any chances of a romantic tryst afterwards.
After I had explained the usage of this term in class today, one of my students, asked me what the origins of this expression were. The phrase “going Dutch” probably originates from Dutch etiquette. In the Netherlands, it is not unusual to pay separately when dating.
Additionally, from what I have been able to glean from various sources, the origin of the phrase can be traced back to a time when England and the Netherlands fought constantly over trade routes and political boundaries during the 17th century. “The British used the term ‘Dutch’ in a number or derogatory or demeaning ways, including ‘Dutch courage’ (bravery through alcohol) and ‘Dutch treat’, which was actually no treat at all. The Dutch were said to be very stingy with their wealth, almost miserly, so the British used the word ‘Dutch’ informally to imply all sorts of negative behavior.”
Fortunately, the modern idea to “go Dutch” no longer carries the stigma of what the term had originally meant. It is simply a recognized bit of social jargon that sorts out any financial obligations as it were for a social outing.
The term can also be found in other countries. In Italy, the expression pagare alla romana can be translated as: “To pay like people of Rome” or “to pay like they do in Rome” – which has the same meaning as “going Dutch”. Some South American countries use the Spanish phrase pagar a la americana (which literally means to pay American style). In Thailand, the practice of “going Dutch” is referred to rather interestingly as “American Share” (as if to imply that the term comes directly from American popular culture) and in the Philippines, it is referred to as KKB, an acronym for Kanya Kanyang Bayad which can be translated into English as “pay for your own self.”
I have heard a lot of Korean students try to use this expression in all the years that I have been teaching in Korea. Some have got it right, others have fallen victim to it is Konglish (English/Korean) usage where things get a little lost in translation: “Dutch pay” as in “let’s Dutch pay” or “Let’s have Dutch pay” – which has always made me wonder, who is Dutch?
Sometimes the misuse of the expression has caused for some humorous, not to mention awkward moments in the classroom or when I have joined students for lunch or coffee.
One time when I had joined some students for coffee at Starbucks, a student who was just dying to try out the English he already had studied—when it came time to decide who would pay—said, “Let’s have the Dutch pay.”
I quickly looked around the room to see if there was anyone from the Netherlands who was going to pay for us. There wasn’t.
Yes, sometimes idioms have the tendency to get lost either in translation or usage.