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Geography can be tricky — especially when one place seems to have several names. Over the English Channel on the northwest shore of mainland Europe is a small country called The Netherlands. Sometimes, it’s referred to as Holland. To make matters even more confusing, the people that live there aren’t called "Netherlanders" or "Hollanders," they’re Dutch. So, what is the difference between Holland and The Netherlands?

What Is The Netherlands?

Colorful tulip garden in front of traditional Dutch windmills, Zaanse Schans, Netherlands
Credit: Olena Z/ Shutterstock

The Netherlands is the name for the country as a whole. Just like how the U.S. and Mexico are divided into states, The Netherlands is divided into 12 administrative provinces:

  • Friesland
  • Groningen
  • North Holland
  • Overijssel
  • Drenthe
  • South Holland
  • Zeeland
  • Utrecht
  • Limburg
  • Flevoland
  • Gelderland
  • North Brabant

Each province has its own government led by a governor and a provincial assembly. As you might notice, two of the provinces are called “Holland.”

What Is Holland?

Channel in Amsterdam Netherlands houses river Amstel landmark old european city spring landscape
Credit: Yasonya/ iStock

Holland is the name of two provinces in The Netherlands: North Holland and South Holland. Together, they’re simply referred to as “Holland.” Holland is located on the northwest coast of the country and contains the densest population and most of the country’s major cities including the capital city, Amsterdam. So, if you’re ever confused if Amsterdam is in Holland or The Netherlands, the answer is that it’s in both. It’s just like asking if Denver is in Colorado or the United States.

Why Are Citizens “Dutch?”

Group of Dutch people ride their bikes across a busy city street under clear skies
Credit: S-F/ Shutterstock

People from Germany are German and people from France are French, so why wouldn’t people from The Netherlands be Netherlanders? It would only make sense. Instead, people from The Netherlands are Dutch.

The term “Dutch” comes from the Germanic period before northern Europeans split into different tribes. Initially, “Dutch” just meant “popular” or “common” and was used to describe people who were not part of the learned elite who typically spoke Latin instead of Germanic. During the 15th century when the different countries were being formed, the term “Dutch” was used to describe people from Germany as well and became a synonym for “low-German.” This is why immigrants who arrived in America during the 17th century were referred to as “Pennsylvania-Dutch" although they were from Germany and not The Netherlands.

Eventually, English speakers began to refer to people from Germany as “Germans” and continued to use “Dutch” for people from The Netherlands. It’s much easier to say than “Netherlanders.”