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In China, the Netherlands has a very popular nickname: 海上马车夫 (literally: carriage drivers on the sea or sea coachman), it's so popular that it's printed in Chinese high school textbooks. It's also claimed that this was what the Netherlands was called in the 17th century. However, this nickname is almost completely unknown to the English speaking world. See this Quora question.

According to my research, this nickname in fact comes from Russian. In 1951, Boris Porshnev et al. edited a book titled Новая история. I wasn't able to find the 1951 edition, but Libgen has a 1964 edition. The book contains the following paragraph (copied directly from a PDF, so it might contain errors):

Новая история

Навигационные законы устраняли из английской торговли с колониями и европейскими странами посредничество «морского извозчика» XVII в. — Голландии и были тяжелым ударом для голландской торговли, мореходства и рыболовства. Голландцы торговали преимущественно чужими товарами; фрахт — перевозка товаров — играл основную роль в их торговом могуществе. Естественно, что Голландия отказалась признать навигационные законы английской республики. Это привело в 1652 г. к англо-голландской войне.

In 1955, the scholar Yizhu Wang (王以铸) translated Новая история into Chinese as part of a larger movement of importing academic knowledge from Soviet Russia. He translated the phrase морского извозчика as "海上马车夫". Subsequently, Chinese scholars developed the misconception that this is a popular nickname for the Netherlands, and this phrase has been widely used in Chinese history books ever since.

I searched for the phrase "морского извозчика" in Google books and found that it was also used in 1906 by Sergei Bulgakov to describe the British Empire in the book Краткий очерк политической экономии.

Краткии очерк политической экономии

3½ шил. на жителя, въ 1818 г. 13¼ шил.). Капиталистическая промышленность развивалась гигантскими шагами. Естественно, она не могла опираться при этомъ развитіи на внутренній рынокъ, ибо какой же рынокъ могли представлять собой дошедшіе до положенія нищенства рабочіе и вообще обѣднѣвшій народъ? Конечно, за счетъ этого обѣднѣнія обогатились землевладѣльцы, но на нихъ не могъ опираться промышленный капитализмъ съ его главными отраслями массоваго производства предметовъ первой необходимости, т.-е. народнаго потребленія. Этотъ рынокъ Англія нашла за предѣлами своей страны, гдѣ она не имѣла въ первой половинѣ 19-го вѣка серьезныхъ конкурентовъ, кромѣ, можетъ быть, Франціи. (Въ общихъ цифрахъ англійскій вывозъ возрасталъ съ 16,6 м. ф. ст. въ 1775 г. до 38,1 м. въ 1800 г., 51,4 м. въ 1840 г., въ 1849 63,6 м., а въ 1875 уже 281 м.). Потребность въ рынкѣ заставляла и безъ того прирожденныхъ мореходовъ англичанъ проникать во всѣ страны свѣта, и тогда уже Англія пріобрѣтаетъ положеніе всемірнаго купца и банкира и морского извозчика, которое она сохраняетъ и теперь, сосредоточивая въ своихъ рукахъ ¾ морской торговли. Преобладаніе Англіи на міровомъ рынкѣ и ростъ промышленности, расчитанный на вывозъ, имѣли огромное значеніе

Question: Did Sergei Bulgakov invent the phrase морского извозчика to describe the dominant player in maritime transportation, or was he using an previously established idiom?

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  • Google Books gives several hits for the phrase "морской извозъ" in the sense "maritime transportation" found in periodicals published in the end of XIX century. In particular, in an article titled "Trade balance and its importance" in the journal "Вестникъ Европы" in 1875. It seems to be a common term for the industry. Here is a link: google.es/books/edition/… Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 19:05
  • How serious are you about this research and this specific question? Are you interested in personal opinions (probably not)? Are you looking for a reference to some reliable etymology dictionary (probably yes, but that's not easy)? What if no such reference will be found -- would that prove that the phrase isn't an established idiom? What if this phrase was used, but isn't idiomatic (it's quite a direct description, after all)?
    – Igor G
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 19:12
  • @IgorG It's an exploration out of curiosity. I'm not doing academic research. Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 19:13
  • This really isn't a question about Russian because this phrase is not used in Russian to mean a country - at all. Would it not make more sense as a question about the etymology of "海上马车夫" in Chinese?
    – RomanSt
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:25
  • @RomanSt: it is a question about Russian, its relevance backed by research, to which "no, it's not a thing in Russian and has never been" would be a valid (albeit apparently incorrect) answer. Proving the negative is always a challenge in linguistics, but it doesn't make the question any less suitable for the site
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 21:18

2 Answers 2

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Apparently, at some point, it had been a piece of school class trivia, similar to "mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell". It looks like it was mainly said about Norway, not the Netherlands.

These days, it's not used in Russian as an established metaphor, but it's still being cited every now and then (again, mostly in reference to Norway)

Georgy Kublitsky, В стране странностей, 1970:

Уже с давних пор большинство норвежских кораблей вообще подолгу не заглядывает в родные порты. Норвежский торговый флот еще в прошлом веке прозвали «морским извозчиком». Он перевозит грузы для других стран, зарабатывая своей стране иностранную валюту.

, which means:

For quite a while now, the majority of Norwegian ships haven't visited home ports for any very long period of time. Even as early as the last century, the Norwegian merchant fleet was dubbed морской извозчик, "the coachman of the sea". They transport cargo for other countries, earning foreign currency for theirs.

(translation mine).

Petr Gubanov, Кочегар Джим Гармлей, a 1970 short story (set in revolutionary Russia in 1918):

Недаром моряки говорят: "Норвегия — морской извозчик, а Берген — постоялый двор".

which means

No wonder seafarers say: "Norway is the coachman of the sea, and Bergen is the wayside inn"

Красный флот, 1924:

Насколько выгоден промысел "морского извоза", показывает тот факт, что такая территориально- ничтожная страна, как Норвегия, площадью 124.000 миль и с населением всего 2.600.000 человек, имеет торговый флот мощностью 2.300.000 тонн, обслуживая им, как "морской извозчик", потребности других государств.

How profitable sea transportation can be is demonstrated by the fact that such a puny, territory-wise, country as Norway, with its area of 124,000 miles and the population of a mere 2,600,000 persons, has a merchant fleet with a capacity of 2,300,000 tons, using it, as a "sea coachman", to serve the needs of other countries.


"Coachman" is not a completely fair translation because the dated Russian word извоз, technically, just means "transportation services" and извозчик is a person or company that provides these services. Морской извоз was an established term which just meant "sea transportation services". These days, it would have been перевозчик, which has the same root with a different prefix.

But for the most part, when people hear the word извозчик, they do picture a single person driving a horse-drawn coach or truck, so the metaphor works really well.

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  • Thanks! So it's originally about Norway, but happened to be used on the Netherlands in one book, that book happened to be imported into China, and it's now all over the place in Chinese discourse on Netherlands. It has even made its way into Chinese Wikipedia on Netherlands: zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hans/Portal:%E8%8D%B7%E5%85%B0 当时被称为“海上马车夫” (Netherlands was called the sea coachman...) Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 18:19
  • @user2249675: it's more along the lines of "you know how Norway is the coachman of the sea, right? Well, back then it was the Netherlands".
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 13:42
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Russian Language Meta, or in Russian Language Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 22:07
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You have made a very interesting observation regarding the etymology of the common Chinese name for the Netherlands. You should write an article about it:) But I don't imagine it'll be easy for you to trace the source of this idiom in Russian, so I'll attempt to help you. First, in modern Russian, this word primarily refers to Norway. This is even taught in Russian schools. For example https://pandia.org/text/77/338/28872.php (see Вариант 2, exercise 11).

Secondly, a passage from the diary of Александра Коллотнай, 1923-01-24: "Мне понравился этот брокер. Говорит, что в мире судовладельцев большая надежда на новую Россию. Они надеются, что будем фрахтовать для наших грузов именно норвежский тоннаж. Во время войны норвежские судовладельцы очень разбогатели, прямо миллионерами стали. А за последние годы в морских перевозках депрессия. Никто ничего не покупает и не возит. «Морской извозчик» терпит убытки. Хорнеман не единственный, кто ждет, когда же торговая делегация начнет свои торговые дела? Вся Норвегия заинтересована в наших закупках. Ведь большинство норвежского населения живет рыбным промыслом или судоходством". Since the idiom we're interested in was put in quotation marks by the author, it can be assumed that even in 1923, "морской извозчик" was a stable phrase, and since we can guess which country it referred to merely from the context, Norway was already known by default as "морской извозчик".

Therefore, I think this phrase originated before 1906

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  • 1
    +1 for mentioning Norway as The Coachman of the Sea. As in the beginning of the 20th century this was a country with a population too small relative to the size of its trade fleet that was mainly hired to deliver goods in the interests other countries. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 14:07
  • 2
    "Firstly, in current Russian language, this word means now primarily Norway" - it must be clarified that NO native speaker of Russian will think of Norway, Netherlands or indeed any country when reading "морской извозчик". I think most will take it at face value. It might have some meaning to history buffs, perhaps - not being a history buff I can't judge. But certainly it absolutely does not mean Norway to the average speaker.
    – RomanSt
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 20:11
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    The term "морской извозчик" itself has "sunk in to history". But nowadays shipping/logistic company MAERSK from small (tiny) Denmark handles approximately 1/6 of the world's maritime container traffic....
    – Sergey
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 8:25

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