What is the origin of the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’?

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist

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In many ways, the Dutch used to be Britain’s closest neighbours. From the rise of the United Provinces during the reign of Elizabeth I until the eclipse of the Netherlands as a major power in the Napoleonic wars, they were sometimes enemies but more usually co-religionist allies, important trading partners and occasional colonial rivals. And, of course a Dutchman, William, became king of England in 1689.

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These connections are evident in our language: slang dictionaries are full of expressions such as ‘going Dutch’, ‘Dutch auction’ and ‘Dutch uncle’.

‘Dutch courage’ has two possible origins. The first derives from the disparaging idea that Johnny Foreigner, whether sailing up the Medway or facing down the locals in the East Indies, needed a few drinks before a fight. The second theory relates more directly to the use of a specific drink – gin – to bolster one’s courage.

Gin in its modern form was reputedly invented by the Dutch physician Franz de le Boë (Franciscus Sylvius) in the 17th century. British troops fighting Louis XIV alongside their allies in the Low Countries appreciated the calming effects of Jenever (Dutch gin) before heading into battle. Cheap gin was widely available in London by the early 18th century.

Whether or not it specifically referred to gin, ‘Dutch courage’ as an English colloquialism tended to mean using spirits, not just beer, to stiffen resolve.

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Answered by: Eugene Byrne, author and journalist