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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.


And they’re bringing lots of peanut butter.

Dear Word Detective: I was listening to “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” on National Public Radio, and the theme was Memorial Day. The host Michael Lasser played Nora Bayes’ version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” In the second verse, unlike the familiar “The Yanks are coming” she sings “The Sammies are coming.” I had never heard this nickname for American soldiers before. Was it a popular nickname for doughboys in the period around WWI? Or was it Cohan trying to start a new word? — Max Urata.

Thanks for a great question, especially since I learned something in the course of researching it. Even better, as soon as I read your email, “Over There” started running through my head, mercifully replacing that dreadful “Hillary for You and Me” jingle that’s been lurking there, unbidden, for months. Incidentally, for those of you similarly afflicted, have you noticed that said ditty is a dead ringer for “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” (aka “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”) from the 1970s Coca-Cola ad campaign? Somebody ought to sue somebody.

The reason I’m so familiar with “Over There” is that “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the famous 1942 biographical film about Cohan (starring the brilliant Jimmy Cagney as Cohan), was one of my father’s favorite movies, and I must have seen it at least twenty times while growing up. George M. Cohan (1878-1942) was a songwriter, playwright, lyricist, singer, dancer, actor and producer in the early 20th century, generally considered a musical genius, and famous as “the man who owned Broadway.” In addition to “Over There,” Cohan is known for his songs “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Cohan wrote “Over There” just after the US entered the First World War in 1917, and the song was enormously popular during the war and recorded by several famous artists of the day. The lyrics of the chorus are, as far as I can tell, always cited as “Over there, over there, Send the word, send the word over there, That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, The drum’s rum-tumming everywhere….” “Yanks,” of course, is short for “Yankees,” slang for Americans.

But I did find a website ( offering vintage recordings of the song, and the version recorded by Nora Bayes in 1917 does change “Yanks” to “Sammies” in the second verse. But another 1917 recording, by Billy Murray, has “Yanks” in both verses. The second verse of the version by Enrico Caruso seems to be in Italian, which gets us nowhere.

“Sammies” was indeed popular slang of the day, primarily in Britain, for American soldiers in World War I, drawn from the iconic character of Uncle Sam as a symbol of the US. According to an article in Stars & Stripes from 1918, however, the “Sammies” themselves were less than thrilled with the name (“A Sammie may be defined as an American soldier as he appears in an English newspaper or a French cinema. It is a name he did not invent, does not like, never uses and will not recognize”).

So Cohan definitely did not invent “Sammie,” but whether it was ever properly part of his song or simply inserted by Nora Bayes we’ll probably never know. It may be significant that another patriotic song of the same period, by S.C. Dunn, was titled “The Sammies Are Coming.” Perhaps Ms. Bayes had heard Dunn’s song and decided to “improve” Cohan’s chorus on her own.