July 12, 2000
Marilyn Kloss wrote:
"The clouds will clear when there is enough blue sky to make a Dutchman a pair of pants." My mother (born in 1913 in northern New Hampshire) has been saying this all my life, and she learned it from her mother (from Nova Scotia by way of Lowell, Massachusetts). Recently an aunt by marriage (from Waterbury, Vermont) mentioned the same expression (with the variation of "britches") and said that she had learned it from her mother. Yesterday I was with some friends (about 60 years old) from Liverpool, England, who know the same expression, but the variations are that it is an "Irishman" and his "trousers." Where did this expression come from?
I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, and my grandmother (born 1888) used to say it was going to clear "when there's enough blue sky to make a pair of pants." I had never heard anyone else say that and always assumed it was a Pennsylvania Dutch expression though it puzzled me as a child -- how big did these pants have to be? And then a few weeks ago, I heard an announcer on WQXR say something about "enough blue sky to make a Dutchman's breeches (or britches)."
A search yielded examples of this piece of weather lore from all over the country and from Scotland although none of the other Mavens has ever heard of it. I found a recent citation in the London Independent that was quoting an Australian: "If there is enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor's pants, it's on its way to clearing." And sure enough, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says "Dutchman's breeches" is nautical slang meaning 'a patch of blue sky visible through clouds'. The phrase is listed in several dictionaries and on a Web site of sailors' slang.
The first citation for "Dutchmans' breeches" in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from the late 1920s, but the phrase seems to have originated in Britain. The OED quotes Admiral William Henry Smyth's A Sailor's Wordbook from 1867 as follows: "Dutchman's breeches, the patch of blue sky often seen when a gale is breaking, is said to be, however small, 'enough to make a pair of breeches for a Dutchman'."
But why "Dutchman"? One dictionary of sea slang that I found suggests that the blue patches in a stormy sky are "rather like a generously patched pair of trousers as worn by music-hall Dutchmen." The derogatory references to the Dutch in a number of English expressions go back to the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, so we can imagine that the 19th-century music-hall Dutchman was a figure of fun in his baggy patched pants.
Nowhere did I find anything about an "Irishman's trousers," but it is probably a derogatory reference paralleling that to the Dutch. "Dutch pennants" and "Irish pennants" are both 'untidy ropes hanging from aloft', according to Granville's Dictionary of Sailor's Slang.
I just wonder how my Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother picked up this piece of nautical slang!
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