5

The term dutchman is used to describe a repair patch used in carpentry. Various dictionaries define it along the lines of

Something used to fill or cover a gap, especially a block of wood or stone set into a larger piece to replace a damaged section.

American Heritage

These are examples of the type of construction

dutchman

(original found at this site)

dutchman2

(original found at this site)

The dictionary definitions give no etymology, and this usage does not appear on etymonline.

A common sense guess might associate the usage with the story of the Dutch boy placing his finger in a hole in a dike, an oft published story from the mid-19th century, and repeated in Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, a novel by American author Mary Mapes Dodge. Wikipedia.

But that is nothing more than a guess. Does anyone have guidance as to the origin of this usage?

  • Now, I know what to call that patch of new wood used to repair my very very old kitchen/dining table. I never thought it had a technical term. Thank you for teaching me a new expression! – Mari-Lou A Jul 2 '15 at 2:44
  • I've see the term used a number of times in woodworking/construction magazines, and probably used it myself a time or two. But I have no idea as to the origin of the term. The "finger-in-the-dike" would be a guess, but only that, and I have my doubts. I'd suspect instead either some sort of mild ethnic slur or a reference to a technique seen in, eg, Dutch furniture. (Or it may be a technique commonly used by a man with an unpronounceable Dutch name.) – Hot Licks Jul 2 '15 at 2:59
4

The book Torching the Fink Books and Other Essays on Vernacular Culture (by Archie Green) offers seven pages on the origin of dutchman. In summary, the most plausible theory suggests that dutchman was first applied by American mechanics to compliment the skill of their German fellows around 1830s-1840s.

Here are some relevant parts from the book:

The first lexicographer to recognize dutchman as applied to a work process was John Russell Bartlett in the Dictionary of Americanisms: "A flow in a stone or marble slab, filled up by an insertion."

...

Bartlett recorded dutchman in his Dictionary in 1859. It is a good rule of thumb in language study that a word circulates orally many years before it gets into print, and often for some time in print before it is rewarded by being placed in a dictionary.

...

The first woodworkers in the New World were colonists and pioneers who felled trees, cut logs into lumber, and built their own crude implements. While the nation was still young, the invention of specialized woodworking machinery set the stage for factory production of wood products. It was only after the application of the steam engine to saw mills, and the introduction of the circular saw and related tools, that cheap, rapid, mass production of finished lumber, furniture, sashes and doors, and stock trim was possible. Hence it was in the decades of the 1830s and 1840s that mill-cabinet and building entrepreneurs reached out to Germany and other European areas for skilled help.

...

The early machine woodworking trade was centered in the growing cities of the East Coast, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia; then it gradually spread to Cincinnati, Chicago, and Grand Rapids as the forests of Wisconsin and Michigan were opened to lumbering operations.

Some place, some time, perhaps in an East Coast cabinet shop in the Age of Jackson, a native tradesman complimented the craftsmanship of a German mechanic and a new word was born. Neither lexicographer Bartlett nor shipwright Carrwardine is here to give his sources.

(emphasis mine)

Source: Google Books

3

According to the following extract, the term dutchman, meaning a patch of wood, may come from Dutch sailors mended pants:

  • The etymology of this term remains a debatable mystery… was it an ethnic slur motivated by the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1600's, or the frugal craftsmanship of German immigrants (Pennsylvania Dutch), or perhaps the nameless boy “Hero of Haarlem” who plugged a dike with his finger (an American, not Dutch, bit of fiction in an 1865 book entitled Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland).

  • My vote for the origin of this term is the now uncommon phrase “enough clear sky to mend a Dutchman's breeches” (or similar variants). Seafaring lore held that bad weather would end when two patches of blue in an otherwise stormy sky were large enough for said mending. In the Age of Sail, sailors wore wide, short pants called breeches, and the breeches of Dutch sailors were typically blue.

  • Superstitious sailors troubled by apparitions on the high seas sometimes claimed to have seen the Flying Dutchman, a legendary ghost ship. The first printed reference was in A Voyage to Botany Bay from 1795; the skeptical author noted the story had apparently originated with a Dutch man of war lost off the Cape of Good Hope.

(www.zoogmatic.com)

Dutch at a point in history was used as derogatory adjective and that may have influenced the term dutchman with that respect referring to a work badly executed :

  • Since c. 1600, Dutch (adj.) has been a "pejorative label pinned by English speakers on almost anything they regard as inferior, irregular, or contrary to 'normal' (i.e., their own) practice" [Rawson]. E.g. Dutch treat (1887), Dutch uncle (1838), etc. -- probably exceeded in such usage only by Indian and Irish -- reflecting first British commercial and military rivalry and later heavy German immigration to U.S.

(Etymonline)

0

My father, who had worked as a carpenter in the early 1950's and whose father was a Dutch immigrant (1912), used to say that carpenters used the term "Dutchman" to mean: "Something to take up space". He regarded it as a good-natured, if slightly derogatory, slur.

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