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Dutch Oven

Pot party.

Dear Word Detective: On a recent episode of the Food Network’s program “Good Eats,” Alton Brown discussed Dutch ovens and said that the origin of the name is unknown and may have referred either to the method of casting the pots, which was invented by the Dutch, or as of the result of the importation of the pots to New Amsterdam. As I watched it I thought “Aha! Evan will know!” but a quick perusal of the internet indicates you probably won’t. Since that’s never stopped you before, however, care to hazard a guess? — Jackie.

Hmm. I’m not sure how to take that. But I sense that you meant it as a tribute to my willingness to discuss questions to which I lack a definite answer. To be honest, when I first began this gig, I found the fact that reputable reference works so often label a word or phrase “origin unknown” a bit discouraging. But I have discovered, over the years, that even if a proposed origin fails to meet the standards of proof used in the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, one can still often peg it as likely to be true. Then again, I think I may have a higher-than-average tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

So, anyway, a “Dutch oven” is, for the microwave addicts among us, a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid. The classic Dutch oven also has legs, a sort of built-in trivet, allowing it to be stood atop a pile of burning coals, and a rim on the lid where more coals can be placed. Modern Dutch ovens, without legs, are usually made of cast iron and can be used either in the oven of a home stove or up top on the burners. It is apparently possible to cook just about anything in a Dutch oven, though stews, casseroles and the like are most often associated with the cookware.

Dutch ovens have been in use for hundreds of years, and were popular in both Britain and the American colonies in the 18th century. According to what is considered the definitive history of the contraption (“Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States” by John G. Ragsdale), the impetus to their popularity in the UK and America was a visit to Holland in 1704 by a certain Abraham Darby, who studied the casting process used by the Dutch to make a superior type of cast iron pot. Darby adopted the process in England and shipped his “ovens” all over Britain as well as to America.

In his book, Ragsdale offers three theories for the “Dutch” label: the adoption of the casting process from Dutch manufacturers, itinerant Dutch salesman pushing the pots, or the popularity of the cookware in “Dutch” (actually German) areas of Pennsylvania in Early America. Of these, I think the first, that the ovens themselves were developed in Holland, is the most likely to be the original source of the name. Among other things, it would explain the use of the term in Britain. Traveling Dutch salesmen are certainly possible, but it was Darby’s company that really popularized the pots in England, probably using the “Dutch” label to lend humble pots a cachet of sophistication. And while the Pennsylvania “Dutch” certainly used “Dutch ovens,” it’s unlikely that folks in England, who had been using them for years, would adopt a name based on what the colonists called them.


I use the Dust Bunny Decimal System.

Dear Word Detective: Well, I finally got around to reading Alice in Wonderland and learned that the race the animals who have been caught in Alice’s tears run in order to dry off is referred to by one of the animals as a “caucus-race.” This got me to thinking about the origin of the word “caucus.” The Oxford English Dictionary is no help — it says the word’s origins are obscure. Any thoughts? — Jackie.

Well, my first thought is that I don’t own too many books after all. It is true that I have perhaps 600 in my office and a few hundred more above the garage. It’s also apparent that our house is slowly sinking and my beloved books may be partially to blame. But I have long maintained that even the most obscure, dust-encrusted volume in my library may someday earn its keep, and today is that day. Halfway down a pile in the corner of my office I located (within thirty seconds, I must note) a dingy and dog-eared copy of “The Annotated Alice” by Martin Gardner. In erudite notes in the margins of both “Alice” and “Through the Looking Glass,” Mr. Gardner (who for many years wrote the “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American) explains many of the more obscure references and clever jokes Carroll hid in his “Alice” books. As we say in the explaining business, “Bingo!”

To begin at the beginning, a “caucus,” when the word first appeared in America just prior to the Revolution, was a private meeting of the leaders of a political party to pick candidates for office or conduct other internal party business. “Caucus” has broadened over the years to mean any sort of closed political meeting to decide policy, and has lately been in the news here in the US because some states use a “caucus” system (rather than primary elections) to apportion delegates to the national parties’ conventions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes, the roots of “caucus” have been a mystery since it first appeared in English. It has been suggested that the term was borrowed from the Caucus Club, a social and political club in Boston at the time, which took its name from the Greek “kaukos,” or drinking cup. A more likely source is the Algonquin Indian word “caucauasu,” meaning “one who advises, urges, or encourages.” The OED is skeptical about this theory, but it makes perfect sense to me.

According to Gardner’s “Annotated Alice,” the “caucus-race,” in which various animals run in circles with no particular starting or stopping point, was a satire on the tail-chasing procedures of British political parties of the day, in which much energy and commotion produced little or no results.


Long-lost for a reason.

Dear Word Detective: What is the definition of “couzened,” as in “was now resolved to be couzened no more”? Thanks for the help! — Rebecca.

Thanks for a good question. I remember running across that word many times over the years, and inferring its meaning from its context, but I’d never, until now, taken the time to investigate its background.

You don’t give a source for the quotation you cite (assuming it is a quotation from something you’ve read), but a Google search turns up only one source online for those exact words, “William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times From the Year 1602 to 1681,” which was published in London in 1715. Lilly was an interesting fellow, a famous English astrologer who specialized in predicting events with what is said to have been notable success. He predicted, most famously, the Great Fire of London fourteen years before it happened, for which he was rewarded by being investigated on suspicion of having started it himself. He was acquitted.

The particular passage in which Lilly uses “couzened” is titled “Of My Marriage the First Time,” and begins with a description of his beloved: “My mistress, who had been twice married to old men, was now resolved to be couzened no more; she was of a brown ruddy complexion, corpulent, of but mean stature, plain, no education, yet a very provident person, and of good condition….” Twice bitten and now once shy, Lilly’s paramour evidently had a low opinion of her former husbands, apparently with good reason.

To “cozen” (which is the standard spelling of the word today) is “to cheat, to deceive or to defraud by duping.” The word first appeared in English in the late 16th century, probably as slang of the criminal underworld.

There are two proposed origins of “cozen,” and this is one of those rare cases where both may be true. The more straightforward theory traces the word to the old Italian verb “cozzonare,” meaning “to play the horse trader” and, horse trading being a notoriously shifty business, “to play the crafty thief.”

A more colorful theory, however, traces “cozen” to the word “cousin” and specifically the Old French verb “cousiner,” meaning “to claim kinship in order to cheat.” Evidently it was not uncommon for knaves to go literally door to door, claiming to be the long-lost cousin of the residents, in order to gain their trust (and money). This theory is bolstered by the use of the English phrase “to make a cousin of” meaning “to cheat” in the 16th century.

As I said, both stories may be true. Perhaps the word did originally derive from the Italian “cozzonare,” but its resemblance to the English “cousin,” and the well-known use of fraudulent kinship to dupe victims by thieves, popularized “cozen.” Whatever the story, “cozen” is a very cool word.