Do the words Dutch, Holland, and the Netherlands confuse you? You're not alone. Some Dutch people say they come from Holland, while others declare they're from the Netherlands, but what does it all mean, and where does this confusion of terms come from?
The Difference Between the Netherlands and Holland
The fact that these are two of the most densely populated provinces where most of the country's major cities are concentrated makes the term "Holland" a convenient short-hand for the more cumbersome "the Netherlands".
The word Netherlands, or Dutch Nederland, both come from the expression for "lower land"; the prefix nether- (Dutch neder-), which means "lower" or "under", is also seen in such words as netherworld ("underworld"), nethermost ("lowest") and netherward ("downward"). This reference to the country's low-altitude is also reflected in expressions like the "Low Countries", which, on the other hand, refers to a much broader territory than the Netherlands alone. This term opens up even more confusion, as it has been used to refer to various parts of anywhere from two to five countries, but primarily used as a descriptor of the Netherlands and Belgium.
As for "Holland", the Oxford English Dictionary states that this name can be traced to Middle Dutch holtland, or woodland in English.
This is the same holt that can be seen in town and city names across the United States, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Germany and elsewhere. The Middle Dutch word holt is transformed into hout in modern Dutch, and still bears a close resemblance to the German word Holz (pronounced hohltz); both variants abound in toponymy.
The dictionary also reports the popular misconception that the name derives from hol land, or "hollow land", another reference to the country's altitude below sea level.
How to Refer to the Inhabitants of the Netherlands and Holland
If you are speaking about the inhabitants of the two provinces of North and South Holland, the Dutch language has the adjective hollands, which means "of or from Holland". Since the English language does not have a modern word to express the same notion, the phrase "of or from Holland" is the default expression. The term Hollandic exists but is chiefly restricted to specialized academic use, and the word Hollandish is sadly obsolete.
Unlike the normal structure of Germans are from Germany for example, the term Dutch is used to express "of or from the Netherlands", and is quite unusual. People often question why the terms Netherlandish and/or Netherlanders are not used, and why Dutch sound so similar to German deutsch?
The Dutch themselves use the terms Nederlands as the adjective for "Dutch", and Nederlanders specifically to refer to the people of the Netherlands, but these terms are not used in English. More confusingly, in the United States, there is a presence of the Pennsylvania Dutch, which perplexes most people, as they are of Germanic descent.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term Dutch is a relic of the common Germanic period, a time before the Germans, Dutch and other Northern Europeans split into different tribes. At first, the word Dutch simply meant "popular", as in "of the people", as opposed to the learned elite, which used Latin instead of the Germanic vernacular.
In the 15th and 16 centuries, the word "Dutch" simultaneously meant both German and Dutch, or "Low German". This is why the word still survives in the community known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, who first set foot on U.S. soil in the late 17th century. In Germany and the Netherlands, the term "Dutch" - in the form of Dutch duits and German deutsch - later became particularized to the Germans, while the English continued to use "Dutch" to refer to the Germanic people they encountered most frequently, the Dutch of the Netherlands.
Hence, the demonym Dutch is used for the people of the Netherlands, which, despite popular misconception, is not coextensive with Holland, and there is no demonym for the people of Holland.
In short, use the term Dutch to describe the people of the Netherlands, Holland when referring to the provinces of North and South Holland (it is correct and appropriate to say that you are traveling to Holland if you are visiting Amsterdam, for example), and the Netherlands when speaking about the country as a whole.
If you find yourself confused you shouldn't worry because, fortunately, most Dutch people will pardon visitors who mix up these terms. Just don't confuse them with the Danish.