Netherlands (toponymy)

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More than one name is used to refer to the Netherlands, both in English and in other languages. Some of these names refer to different, but overlapping geographical, linguistic and political areas of the country. This is a common source of confusion for outsiders. In English the country is called 'the Netherlands' (or frequently – as a pars pro toto 'Holland'), while the people and the language are called 'Dutch'. In Dutch the official (and predominant) terms for these are 'Nederland' for the country, 'Nederlanders' for the people and 'Nederlands' for the language, although they are occasionally and colloquially called 'Holland', 'Hollanders' and 'Hollands' respectively. The latter comes sometimes with the prefix oer or oud (meaning old or traditional), as in Oudhollandse gerechten (traditionally Dutch dishes).

Occasionally the the is incorrectly capitalised: 'the Netherlands' is similar to names such as 'the United States' and 'the Federal Republic of Germany', so the 't' should usually not be capitalised.

Historically, the English did not distinguish inhabitants of the Low Countries by 'nationality'. In the 15th and the first half of the 16th century, all persons from Germanic lands were called Flemings, Theotonici, Doch, or sometimes Germani. In the second half of the 16th century, all Germanic speakers or inhabitants of the Holy Roman Empire were called Dutch or Douch.

Netherlands and Low Countries[edit]

Place names with Neder (or lage), Nieder, Nether (or low), Nedre, Bas or Inferior are used everywhere in Europe. They are often used as opposed to either a higher or an upstream ground that consecutively is indicated as Upper, Boven, Oben, Superior or Haut. Both downstream (at the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta) and low (the plain near the North Sea) apply to the Low Countries or the Netherlands. However, the related geographical location of the upper ground changed over time tremendously:

  • The Romans made a distinction between the Roman provinces of downstream Germania Inferior (nowadays part of Belgium and the Netherlands) and upstream Germania Superior (nowadays part of southern Germany).
  • The designation 'Low' to refer to the region returns again in the 10th century Duchy of Lower Lorraine, that covered much of the Low Countries.[1][2] But this time the corresponding Upper region is Upper Lorraine, in nowadays Northern France.
  • In the 13th century, the Dutch medieval poet Melis Stoke wrote in his Rijmkroniek that the term Neder Zassen (or Lower-Saxony) used to be all the land between Scheldt and Elbe (thus including much of the Low Countries). In that case, the upper ground would have been located in Saxony, in the northwest corner of Germany.[3]
  • The Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled the Low Countries in the 15th century, used the term les pays de par deçà (~ the lands over here) for the Low Countries as opposed to les pays de par delà (~ the lands over there) for their original homeland: Burgundy in present-day east-central France.[4]
  • In the first half of the 16th century, under the Habsburg rule of Mary of Hungary Les pays de par deçà developed in pays d'embas (lands down-here),[5] a deixic expression in relation to other Habsburg possessions in Europe, particularly mountainous Austria and Hungary. This was translated as Neder-landen in contemporary Dutch official documents.[6]
  • However, since the late Middle Ages, Niderlant (in singular) was also the region between the Meuse and the lower Rhine. The area known as Oberland (High country) was in this deixic context considered to begin approximately at the nearby higher located Cologne.
  • From the mid-sixteenth century on, the Low Countries or the Netherlands was – besides Flanders – probably the most commonly used name and lost its deixic meaning. The Eighty Years' War (1568–1648) divided the Low Countries into the northern United Provinces (Belgica Foederata in Latin, the "Federated Netherlands") and the Southern Netherlands (Belgica Regia, "Royal Netherlands"). The Low Countries today is a designation that includes the countries the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. It is used synonymous with the more neutral and geopolitical term Benelux.

Kingdom of the Netherlands[edit]

The United Kingdom of the Netherlands existed from 1815 to 1830. When Belgium became independent, the Northern Provinces continued using 'the Netherlands'.

Today the Kingdom of the Netherlands encompasses the Netherlands, one constituent country of the Kingdom, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. In Dutch common practice, the Kingdom of the Netherlands is shortened to 'Kingdom' and not to 'Netherlands', as the latter may confuse the Kingdom with the constituent country. The Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands also shortens the Kingdom of the Netherlands to 'Kingdom' rather than 'Netherlands'.[7] Outside the Kingdom, however, 'Netherlands' is a common name for the Kingdom of the Netherlands (e.g. as a short name in international organizations and during bilateral meetings).


The English adjective "Netherlandish," meaning "from the Netherlands," is typically used in reference to paintings or music produced anywhere in the Low Countries during the 15th and early 16th century, which are collectively called Early Netherlandish painting (in Dutch Vlaamse primitieven, Flemish primitives—also common in English before the mid 20th century), or (regarding music) the Netherlandish School.

Later art and artists from the southern Catholic provinces are usually called Flemish and those from the northern Protestant provinces called Dutch, but art historians sometimes use "Netherlandish art" for art produced in both areas between 1400 and 1830.

However, "Netherlandish" is used, as well, as a general-purpose adjective; e.g., "Northern Netherlandish humanists."[8]


Location of Holland within the Netherlands
In football (soccer), the Dutch national team is commonly referred to as "Holland"; here supporter shirts for sale at Amsterdam Airport

In many languages including English, "Holland" (Hollande, Holanda etc.) is a common name for the Netherlands as a whole. Even the Dutch use this sometimes. Strictly speaking, Holland is only the central-western region of the country comprising two of the twelve provinces, North Holland and South Holland, and thus linguistically a pars pro toto similar to use of Russia for the (former) Soviet Union, and England for the United Kingdom. The use is sometimes discouraged. For example, the "Holland" entry in the style guide of The Guardian and The Observer newspapers states: "Do not use when you mean the Netherlands (of which it is a region), with the exception of the Dutch football team, which is conventionally known as Holland".[9] The Times style guide states "use the Netherlands ... for all contexts except sports teams, historical uses, or when referring to the provinces of North and South Holland".[10]

Historically Holland was the most powerful region in the current Netherlands. The counts of Holland were also counts of Hainaut, Friesland and Zeeland from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Holland remained most powerful during the period of the Dutch Republic and the cities in Holland were important trading cities. Since Holland was the most economically developed region of the Netherlands, it was historically the region that dominated foreign trade, and hence most of the Dutch traders encountered by foreigners were from Holland, which explains why the Netherlands is often called Holland overseas.[11] After the demise of the Dutch Republic under Napoleon, that country became known as the Kingdom of Holland (1806–1810). In 1840 the former countship of Holland was split up into two provinces, North Holland and South Holland, because Holland by itself was considered too dominant in area, population and wealth compared to the other provinces. Today the two provinces making up Holland, including the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, remain politically, economically and demographically dominant – 37% of the Dutch population live there.

In most other Dutch provinces and sometimes Flanders, the word Hollander is sometimes used in a pejorative sense to refer to the perceived superiority or supposed arrogance of people from the Randstad – the main conurbation of Holland and of the Netherlands.


Further information: Dutch people

Dutch refers to the inhabitants of the Netherlands and their language, and is used as an adjective meaning 'coming from or belonging to the Netherlands'. Dutch is spoken not only in the Netherlands but also by the Flemish community in Belgium (in the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region), in parts of northern France (around Dunkirk), and in Surinam, Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Its southern dialects are sometimes called Flemish. Afrikaans, spoken in South Africa and the southern part of Namibia, is derived from the Dutch language and closely related to it. It is the language of the Dutch 'Boers' (farmers) as they spoke Dutch in the 16th and 17th century when they migrated to South Africa.

The English Dutch, the Dutch dietsch, and the German deutsch are cognate words. They have the same etymological origin, deriving from the Common West Germanic theodisca, which meant '(language) of the (common) people'. During the early Middle Ages, the elite mostly used Latin and the common people used their local languages.

In the United States, the term Dutch has sometimes been used instead of Deutsch to mean German or to indicate a German origin: Dutch Schultz, the Pennsylvania Dutch, 'the Flying Dutchman' for Honus Wagner, etc.

Low Countries[edit]

The name Low Countries may refer to the European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but it also refers to the historical region de Nederlanden: those principalities located on and near the mostly low-lying land around the delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers. Very roughly that region corresponds to all of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was called Whole Netherlands by people who sought to unite it.[citation needed] This historical region also was referred to as the Netherlands in English.[citation needed]

Between 1579 and 1794 a region comprising present Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of northern France was called the Southern Netherlands (or the Spanish Netherlands between 1579 and 1713, the Austrian Netherlands after 1713, after the main possession of their Habsburg lord).

The region was united three times, in the Seventeen Provinces as a personal union during the 16th century, in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands between 1815 and 1830 under King William I, and as the Benelux customs union founded in 1948.

Other languages[edit]

In most languages, the name for the country literally means Low Countries or is derived from Nederland or Holland. There is great variety between the forms used. Sometimes the name for the country is one form and the adjective to refer to it is another. The use of Dutch as the general adjective for the Netherlands is an international exception, but the use of one word to refer to the country and another to refer to the language is not exceptional.

Passport controversy[edit]

In 2009, members of the First Chamber drew attention to the fact that in Dutch passports, for some EU-languages a translation meaning 'Kingdom of Holland' was used, as opposed to 'Kingdom of the Netherlands'. As replacements for the Estonian 'Holandi Kuningriik', Hungarian 'Holland Királyság', Romanian 'Regatul Olandei' and Slovak 'Holandské král'ovstvo', the parliamentarians proposed Madalmaade Kuningriik, Németalföldi Királyság, Regatul Țărilor de Jos and Nizozemské Král’ovstvo, respectively. Their reasoning was that "if in addition to "Holland" a recognisable translation of the "Netherlands" does exist in a foreign language, it should be regarded as the best translation" and that "the Kingdom has a right to use the translation it thinks best, certainly on official documents".[12] Although the government initially refused to change the text except for the Estonian, recent Dutch passports feature the translation proposed by the First Chamber members.

Other Netherlands-related geographical names[edit]

Abel Tasman gave the name New Holland to the continent now known as Australia, a name it retained for 150 years until the United Kingdom renamed it in 1824. Dutch cartographers following Abel Tasman also named New Zealand after the Dutch province Zeeland. There was also a colony called New Holland in South America. Part of Lincolnshire is also known as Holland.

The Dutch colony centred on New Amsterdam (the modern New York City) was called New Netherland. Today, many cities and neighborhoods in and around New York City have a name originally given by the Dutch and referring to places in the Netherlands, such as Brooklyn (Breukelen), Flushing Meadows (Vlissingen), Harlem (Haarlem) and Hoboken (Hoboken, now in Belgium).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Franks". Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press. 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  2. ^ "Lotharingia / Lorraine ( Lothringen )". 5 September 2013. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 
  3. ^ Bosworth, Joseph (1848). The Origin of the English, Germanic and Scandinavian Languages and Nations: With a Sketch of Their Early Literature. Longman. p. 81fn.  Apparently, the etymology of the German word Niedersachsen goes back to this Dutch source; see "Niedersachsen". Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  4. ^çà&hl=nl&sa=X&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAWoVChMIs5LjwoHJxwIVgjkaCh1JGgSb#v=onepage&q=duke%20pays%20de%20par%20deçà&f=false
  5. ^ "The New Cambridge Modern History: Volume 2, The Reformation, 1520-1559". 
  6. ^ Van der Lem, Anton. "De Opstand in de Nederlanden 1555-1609;De landen van herwaarts over". Retrieved 11 March 2013. 
  7. ^ Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands
  8. ^ The Batavian Myth: A Study Pack from the Department of Dutch, University College London
  9. ^ "Guardian and Observer style guide: H". The Guardian (London). 19 December 2008. Retrieved 1 July 2010. 
  10. ^ "Online style guide - H". The Times (London). 10 July 2009. Retrieved 1 July 2010. 
  11. ^ "Holland or the Netherlands?". The Hague: Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2 July 2010. 
  12. ^ (Dutch) Article on website of First Chamber

External links[edit]