Vintage Books

Americanisms That Come From The Dutch Colony

Santa Claus. Sinterklaas, the Dutch Saint Nicholas, entered American culture via the Dutch of Manhattan, whose children, if they were good, received treats on his feast day, December 6. Over time, the tradition was adopted by Manhattan's non-Dutch population and shifted to the more generally observed holiday of Christmas.

Cookies, cole slaw, pancakes. The Dutch colony is woven into American food traditions, and it's the ubiquity of these foods that shows how pervasive the colony's influence is. Cookie comes from the Dutch koeckje, "little cake," which first appears in the Manhattan records in 1661. It's because of the Dutch colony that Americans don't eat "bisquits."

Boss. If you had to pick one word to show the influence of the Dutch colony on America, this would be a good one. The Dutch baas meant "master," but in the freeform atmosphere of Dutch Manhattan, the Old World power relationships changed, and so did the meaning. As the English took over Manhattan, they found the Dutch word a handy way to characterize the new American way of work. "We have no class system here," it seemed to say, "but there is someone in charge. I'm not your master or lord, but I am your boss."

District Attorney. In Old England, individuals seeking justice were responsible for mounting their own prosecution. The Dutch system had an official to do this, called a schout. When the English took over Manhattan, they kept this useful office, which first appears in English records as "scout." In time, the district attorney, as it became known, would become a feature of American local government.

Place Names. From Brooklyn to Rhode Island, from the Schuylkill River to Cape May, New Jersey, from Harlem to Yonkers to Staten Island, Dutch names cover the map of the American Northeast, testament to a lasting legacy.


The Island at the Center of the World
Russell Shorto
April 2005
$14.95 (Can. $21.00)