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A Round Trip and Unpleasant Etymology

That’s the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street, in a maybe 1910 postcard from the Detroit Publishing Company. The building had exterior and interior designs by several famous architects and is, unsurprisingly, a designated landmark. It lasted less than twenty years as a hotel when first built, then was used as an office building for 90 years, and is now back to being a hotel.

That’s the “round trip” and it’s now time for a less pleasant and stranger topic, the word “knickerbocker.” As far as I can tell, it was invented from scratch by Washington Irving in A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, published in 1809. Irving is best known for his short stories, and A History of New York is anything but that. My old paperback copy is over 300 pages long and frankly some of the jokes that are mildly funny at the beginning are quite tiresome by the end. The book’s history is fake from beginning to end, barely rising to the “inspired by” disclaimers you see at the beginning of some movies, but then again, it’s a novel in history form, not an actual history. It contains some actual facts about the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam but unless you actually know the real history there’s no way to separate those facts from Irving’s inventions.

The book is problematic because, among other things, it’s one long ethnic joke. It may not be a slur on the scale of outright racism, but even something like the 1970s craze of Polish jokes, mildly uncomfortable when told one at a time, become a serious problem when repeated through hundreds of pages of a book. Irving presents the Dutch colonists as lazy, dumb, and greedy, and it really doesn’t matter what his intent was. I’ve certainly read enough descriptions of the book as lovingly poking fun or something similar to distrust discussion of his intent.

Irving played a game with reality used by plenty of other writers, claiming that the book was a real history written by a (fictional) Dutch historian named Diedrich Knickerbocker. And there’s the origin, at least in the US, of that word. Over the years knickerbocker came to mean first any resident of the Dutch colony, then the residents of that colony and their descendants in New York, then any resident of New York City, and then, even more weirdly and especially in the shortened form “knickers“, short pants that buttoned at the knees. The last usage comes from the illustrations in the book, which show the colonists wearing such pants.

Sometimes I find that I’m less happy at the end of a little bit of research than I was at the beginning.