I've observed over many occasions of looking up etymologies for words that so many words that entered English during the Middle English and Early Modern period (I don't know the figures) were of Middle Dutch origin, according to linguists. This really surprised me, as besides trade links, I don't know of any particularly close social, cultural, or political ties of England to the Low Countries until the late 17th century. And so many of these words are common, everyday words. (Again, I can't name any off-hand, but perhaps someone could contribute a few.)

So, what could be the reason for this large of influx of common words from Middle Dutch? My gut reaction was that perhaps the etymologists just got it wrong in some of these cases, since with English and Dutch both being Low German languages (within the West Germanic Branch), there's a chance a certain word went completely unattested in surviving texts until relatively late.

Examples of such words: wagon, blare, bicker, blink, block, blow, deck, golf, grab, hoist, leak, pickle, plug, morass, pit, pump, smelt, slim, slurp, snack, split, stern, trigger

Further examples

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    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 2:15

2 Answers 2


Nearly half of these words (not to mention others, like buoy) seem to be related to seafaring or fishing:

block, deck, hoist, leak, plug, pump, smelt, stern, trigger.

And one can imagine that many of the others might have come into the language through sailor's lingo.

Maybe you should narrow down the question to: how closely did Dutch and English sailors interact in the Middle Ages? Maybe fishermen moonlighted as smugglers back then, and got to know their Dutch counterparts fairly well. Or maybe some ships had multinational crews.

  • 2
    Thanks for your answer. I'm not so sure about "smelt" and "trigger" relating to seafaring (at least not directly), but you make a sound point. And yes, if we could answer the question of how/why/when English and Dutch sailors interacted over the period of (say) late Anglo-Saxon times to the Early Modern period, that would help elucidate this matter.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 2:57
  • 3
    @Noldorin Probably smelt, the fish.
    – deadrat
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 5:55
  • We have a number of seafaring words from Low German in German, too. On your list I immediately recognize Deck and Leck.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 8:45
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    @deadrat: That's what I was thinking. But the smelt that comes from Middle Dutch is the "melting metal" meaning. The fish comes from Old English. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 12:07
  • 2
    The Dutch were a seafaring nation for a long time, so this could very well be the key. How much they interacted isn't exactly relevant, it's more that the Dutch had a great presence back in the day. The Dutch East India Company lasted almost 2 centuries.
    – Mast
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 20:44

What about the Flemmings?

They spoke Dutch and lived very close to England (see map). According to "Flemings in the Fens Research Association":

  • Perhaps the most notable Flemish fact to that time was that about one-third of the invading Norman army of 1066 came from Flanders (Murray 1985). The Flemish mercenaries were there as a result of a marriage arrangement by William the Conqueror for a niece and a Flemish count. Many Flemings stayed in England after the Conquest.
  • One of the most enduring Flemish facts in England is related to the immigration of skilled Flemish weavers and textile workers to major centres such as London, Norwich and Colchester from the 11th to the 16th C.
    Flemish Migrations

The County of Flanders is the small yellow blob south east of England:

Antiqua Print Gallery

  • 3
    As an English person of Flemish descent, I had always presumed this was the correct answer to this question. Some of the similarities between English and dialects of Dutch spoken in Flemish areas are startling: one can practically understand them word for word.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:30
  • Thanks, but this doesn't fully answer the question I'm afraid. (Also, it looks very much like what @ab2 posted in the comments section, but perhaps that's coincidence!) Proximity alone is far from enough. I mean, Wales and Scotland are just as close (and Ireland is closer than Flanders, socioculturally at leat)... yet the words from their native Celtic languages that entered English are very few indeed.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:15
  • 2
    @MattThrower: For simple sentences, this can be surprisingly true, yes. In particular with the Frisian language. But the reason is due to the fact they share a (relatively close) common ancestor in the Low German dialects of NW Germany and the Low Countries. The Angles, Saxons, etc. migrated to/invaded England, and thence their languages slowly diverged – although they did evolve in similar ways, by coincidence, cultural contact, and natural linguistics phenomena.
    – Noldorin
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:17

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