The Dutch Disease

13 05 2010

A headline in yesterday’s The Australian (12 May, 2010, p.3 ) caught my eye. It said:  “Watch Out for the Dutch Disease”.  You read along a little in the article by Glenda  Korporaal  and discover, if you didn’t already know, what the Dutch Disease is.

It was first used in 1977 by The Economist magazine. A reference to the aftermath of the discovery of North Sea Oil and gas, when Holland allegedly neglected its manufactory economy in favour of exploiting its natural resources. Since then the term has come to mean the overall economic impact an over-reliance on natural resources (which, after all, are finite).

Typically I’m interested more in the language than the economy, and that’s what drew me to the phrase in the first place. It’s not the first time, of course, that English has used the word Dutch for idiomatic or metaphoric meanings. Consider Dutch courage, and double Dutch . Many of these are  disparaging, reinforcing the notion that xenophobia is an innate quality of our species.  Not all however – consider the more neutral go Dutch.

I wonder whether centuries from now we’ll have long forgotten Holland’s North Sea discoveries, their exploitation and the economic impact of the aftermath, and perhaps  be using the expression for some mutated meaning – like, putting all your eggs in one basket, or some such, or then again, something entirely different.  Most people use such terms with any inkling of their historical origin or the distance they have travelled since first being incorporated in the language. Consider for example terms like a dark horse, or a field day, or throw down the gauntlet. These work perfectly well in modern contexts though they have surely moved their moorings more than once over the centuries.

As for the Dutch disease, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

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