For the most part, the English name for a country is similar to the English name for the people who live there. The French live in France, Indonesians live in Indonesia, Rwandans live in Rwanda and so on. That’s not always the case, however. The people who live in the Netherlands are not Netherlandish or Netherlandians, they’re…Dutch. While it’s not too difficult to figure that out, the difference in nomenclature can reveal some interesting historical insights. Throw in the name Holland, and there’s even more complexity.
Here, we’ll dive into a little history behind each of these terms and figure out where they came from.
The meaning of “Netherlands” isn’t too hard to guess. “Nether” means “low” and “lands” means “countries” (or, more simply, “lands”). The modern Dutch equivalent is Nederland, which means the same thing.
The name has been around for a long time, but the region was not always officially called that. The region that currently encompasses both the Netherlands and Belgium — sometimes called the Low Countries — has changed hands many times. One common thread in its naming, though, is that it often refers to the fact that the land is lower than the surrounding landmass. Back when it was a Roman territory in the first century CE, the area was called Germania Inferior (to contrast with the section of Germany called Germania Superior). When the Kingdom of Germany took over the area in the 10th century, it became Lower Lorraine. It wasn’t until the 15th century that Nederlandsch appears in the historical record, and at that point it referred to the language spoken by the people in the area. It also existed alongside the more common term for the people in the area, Duytsch (more on that below).
It took a few hundred more years for Nederlandsch to take hold as the official name for the region. In the 19th century, Belgium split off (taking the name Belgica from an old Latin name for the Low Countries), and the name Nederlandsch slowly started taking over from the other common name, Nederduytsch. Since then, it’s become the country’s moniker.
The word Dutch comes from a Proto-Germanic word meaning “of the people.” It shares a root with the German word Deutsch, which has led to some confusing names. The name Germans call Germany, for example, is Deutschland and the people there Deutsch. Dutch and German are related, after all, both being Germanic languages. As mentioned in the last section, the Netherlands for a time was called Nederduytsch, meaning “of the lower people.”
The use of Dutch to refer to the people of the Netherlands doesn’t occur in most languages, however. English is the only language that calls the language spoken in the Netherlands “Dutch.” The Dutch themselves called their language Nederlands, and most other languages have some variation on that theme.
English has thrown around the word Dutch and its various spellings for hundreds of years. One lasting legacy of the willy nilly usage is Pennsylvania Dutch, which is the name for a branch of the German language that developed in North America. As far as the naming conventions involving the Netherlands goes, English is the odd one out.
The use of Holland to refer to the entirety of the Netherlands is also a quirk of English (though it’s done by some non-English speakers as well). The word derives from Old Dutch holt land, meaning “wood land,” and it specifically refers to one region of the Netherlands. Calling the Netherlands “Holland” is a bit like calling the United Kingdom “England.” People might not call you out if you happen to do so, but it’s not necessarily accurate.
There was one time that Holland was the name of the whole country: 1806 to 1810. That’s when Napoleon Bonaparte installed his brother as the puppet ruler of the country in an attempt to keep control of it. That’s likely not the reason why modern-day people call the country Holland, however. Instead, it’s probably that Holland was a largely autonomous region through much of its history, and so Holland got conflated with the country as a whole. At the same time, Holland — with its idyllic pastures and towering windmills — has become a cultural shorthand for the entire country in the modern world. Still, you should probably just call the Netherlands by its rightful name to avoid any problems.