A Brief History of the Phrase “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t Much”

It’s a phrase frequently employed in media coverage of Dutch Americans. It appears on kitsch t-shirts and coffee mugs. Even Dutch King Willem Alexander said it a speech in Michigan in 2015.

“There’s an old expression here,” chuckles Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” [1]

From the Netherlands, a journalist reports: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much”, they still always say in west Michigan.[2]

The phrase is now well-known and well-worn. It strikes many as a form of chauvinism more than pride, and it’s got the right alliteration and meter to remain a classic. But it is vague enough to be useful in a variety of contexts, and so it can mean different things to different people.

But just how old is this phrase, and where did it come from? I’ve spent almost twenty years studying and writing about the Dutch in the United States, and I can’t remember ever encountering the phrase “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” in any archival documents more than twenty years old.

Curious about the origins of the phrase, I turned to digital databases. The growth of digital databases makes possible the kind of search that decade ago would have been tedious and difficult, if not impossible. One of the best sources for Dutch American history is the digital newspaper database collection at Delpher.nl, which hosts a number of Dutch-language newspapers printed in the United States. I also checked for any “ain’t Dutch” references in the historical New York Times, newspaperarchive.com, Proquest, and various general search engines.

The result of a fairly extensive search was this: the earliest printed use of the phrase was in a newspaper from Iowa in the year 1980. “If yer not Dutch yer not much” and “If you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much” are mentioned as favorite t-shirt sayings by students in Hawarden, Iowa in 1980.[3]  The two competing versions may indicate the linguistic immaturity of the phrase, suggesting that it had not yet been fixed in usage. The “ain’t Dutch” variety appeared in the Sioux Center News a few months later.[4]  Printed sources indicate that the phrase continued to be in use at the Tulip Time parade in Orange City, Iowa in the 1980s.[5] It is difficult to know for sure, but the evidence suggests that this phrase originated in Northwest Iowa, spread first across the Midwest, before appearing in Canada, on the American East Coast, and in the Netherlands. But then again, there are only a few crumbs on the trail.

Evidence for a 1970s Northwest Iowa origin of the phrase also comes from my informal polling of members of the Association for the Advancement of Dutch American Studies (AADAS) on the AADAS facebook page. AADAS member Robert Schoone-Jongen recalls hearing it for the first time in Orange City in the mid-1970s as “part of the patter the announcer used while narrating the Tulip Time parade.” Lavonne Samlaska remembers hearing it in Southwest Minnesota in the late 1970s, where her grandmother had changed it to “If you’re Dutch you won’t amount to much.” Randall Scheurs adds that he grew up in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, but first heard the phrase as a student at Iowa’s Northwestern College in 1979-1982. Doug Anderson also reports hearing the phrase first when he moved to Iowa in 1989.  Johanna Vanderwal Taylor was sure that she heard it in Wisconsin by the 1980s. By the 1990s, Wisconsin’s Dutchman Travel Trailers was using “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much” as an advertising slogan.[6]

It appears, at least, that the phrase did originate and spread first in Dutch American communities. It was not an import from the Netherlands, nor an old East Coast saying about Dutch New Yorkers. But from the Midwest, it spread North, East, and then across the ocean to the Netherlands. The phrase appeared in 1984 in an entirely different context: an article in the Morning Call, of Allentown, Pennsylvania on 17 May, 1984. Here, it was used to refer to the Pennsylvania Dutch, that is, the Germans, and it was used not as ethnic chauvinism, but in mockery of the Germans. The editorial claimed it was from the “Pennsylvania Anti-Defamation and Preservation League” and that they had trademarked the “..ain’t Dutch…” phrase. A list of demands in the editorial included the ridiculous “declaring war on New Jersey” and changing the national anthem to “Grundsow Uber Alles.”[7]

The “Ain’t Dutch” phrase had definitely spread to Canada by the mid-1980s. An early reference comes from 1982, when the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail used it in review of a book by Berton Roueche, who was referring to his visit to Pella, IA.[8] A t-shirt printed with the words “If ya ain’t Dutch, ya ain’t much” appeared in Ottawa, Ontario in 1987.[9] Likewise, the Dutch newspaper Trouw of May 16, 1988, shows Dutch Canadians in Calgary celebrating the visit of Queen Beatrix with a sign “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

AintDutch

From the Dutch Newspaper Trouw, reporting on Queen Beatrix’s visit to Calgary, Canada in 1988

 

In the Netherlands, the Dutch reported wearing orange shirts with the phrase “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much” in Dusseldorf, Germany, during the European football (soccer) championship of 1988.[10]  This version of the phrase was reported to have been seen on a sticker on a suitcase of a Dutch basketball player in Los Angeles in 1987.[11]  It was used in 1994 to talk about economic recovery in the Dutch stock market.[12] The Zierikzeesche Nieuwsbode of November 16, 1994 notes that a Dutch rock band “Chick ‘n Tricks” had put out a new demo titled “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.”[13]   The Provinciale Zeeuswe Courant of July 30, 2003, mentions contestants in a sailing contest who printed shirts with the words “If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much” on the reverse, above a picture of a laughing cow and the name of a restaurant in Goes.[14]

What does this all mean?  I think there is a lesson here for the study of historical memory and for our popular assumptions of history. Easy to remember phrases make easy history. A number of writers propose that “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t Much” was the attitude of Dutch Americans in an early age. That may be the case, but suggesting that this phrase was in use long ago is an error. I think we can confidently state that.

Curiously, the “Ain’t Dutch” line has been repeatedly declared a provincial saying, those who repeat it often unaware of its use outside of their own communities.  Jay Nordlinger in the National Review called it “a saying from West Michigan, which is stocked with Dutchmen.” But, he noted, “The boast is uncharacteristic, in that the Dutch are so polite.”[15] Similarly, The Detroit News, of May 14, 1990 reporting on Holland, Michigan, calls it a local expression.  It is true in one sense that it is a phrase now in use in West Michigan, but it does not appear to be from West Michigan in the sense that it originated there. The Dutch newspaper Het Paroool, of August 26, 1995 used the phrase for the title of an article in which Jim Heynen, an author from Sioux Center, Iowa, called it a “kenmerkend gezegd” (a typical saying) in his community. This is a weaker claim, but a more accurate one.

A few years ago, national attention fell on a similar story. The historian Richard Jensen  claimed in an article from 2002 that there had been few No Irish Need Apply  (NINA) signs in 19th century United States, and he suggested that anti-Irish discrimination in the United States has been stronger in memory than it was in practice.[16] Jensen’s fault was that he could not prove a negative, so his story was ripe for being overturned. In 2015, when an 8th grade student, Rebecca Fried published a rebuttal based on research in digital databases, the story gained an extra element of intrigue. Jensen’s refusal to hedge his argument hardly helped his cause and in all accounts of the story, Fried was declared the winner.[17]

A single appearance of the “ain’t Dutch” phrase before the 1970s might discredit my thesis, but since it is not a thesis I’m beholden to, I welcome others to push the research and find what I’ve missed. I don’t want to be the next Richard Jensen.

 

[1] Zach Stanton, “How Betsy DeVos Used God and Amway to Take Over Michigan Politics” Politico, January 15, 2017. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/01/betsy-dick-devos-family-amway-michigan-politics-religion-214631)

[2] Translation of: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much”, zeggen ze nog altijd in west Michigan “Betsy DeVos’s missie: christelijke privescholen in een godelijke samenleving,” De Volkskrant, 10 February 2017.  https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/betsy-devos-missie-christelijke-privescholen-in-een-godgerichte-samenleving~b35bcfb4/

[3] The Independent (Hawarden, Iowa), April 3, 1980. (page 6)

[4] Sioux Center News (Sioux Center, IA), July 2, 1980. (page 8)

[5] Sioux County Capital, (published in Orange City, IA, May 14, 1987. (page 27)

[6] The Detroit News, of May 14, 1990; Janesville Gazette, September 9, 1992; Het Paroool, August 26, 1995.

[7] Morning Call (Allentown, PA), 17 May, 1984.

[8] The Globe and Mail, Toronto, CA, 9 October 1982), page 17.

[9] The Ottawa Citizen, 22 Dec 1987.

[10] De Telegraaf, July 16, 1988.

[11] Los Angeles Times, 16 Oct. 1987, page 4.

[12] De Volkskrant, June 4, 1994.

[13] The Zierikzeesche Nieuwsbode, November 16, 1994.  (page 15)

[14] The Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant, July 30, 2003

[15] Jay Nordlinger, “Standing Tall” National Review, May 25, 2018.   https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/standing-tall/ accessed July 5, 2019.

[16] Richard J. Jensen, “’No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization”, Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002), 45-429.

[17] Rebecca Friend, “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs” Journal of Social History, Summer 2016 (49:4), 829-852

One comment

  1. […] “There’s an old expression here,” chuckles Gleaves Whitney, director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” [1] […]

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