What's a Knickerbocker? Very likely you are. "Knickerbocker" is simply an honorific term for New Yorker in much the same way that "Hibernian" is an honorific term for "Irishman." In both cases, they've gained their burnish through age. Hibernia is the Latin term for Ireland, and translates pretty simply as "way the hell the north, where the north wind and winter come from." (This was the perspective of the ancient Romans, remember. "Hibernate" comes from the same root.)
Knickerbocker doesn't go back quite so far. The origin of the word can be precisely dated to 1809, and the publication of a book entitled:
A History of New York
Among many Surprising and Curious Matters, the Unutterable Ponderings of WALTER THE DOUBTER, the Disastrous Projects of WILLIAM THE TESTY, and the chivalric achievements of PETER THE HEADSTRONG, the three Dutch Governors of NEW AMSTERDAM; being the only Authentic History of the Times that ever has been published
BY DIEDRICH KNICKERBOCKER
De waarheid die in duister lag,
(The Dutch epigram might serve as a motto for alt.knicks. It means
The truth that in the darkness lay
Diedrich Knickerbocker was actually a pseudonym for Washington Irving, who is still famous today for "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman), and "Rip Van Winkle," the story of a man that falls asleep for 20 years. But it was with The History of New York that he first made his mark, and some scholars still consider it to be his crowning work, the "first great book of comic literature written by an American." It was astonishingly popular at the time and received critical acclaim as well.
As the title suggests, the book told the story of the first New Yorkers, the Dutch that founded New Amsterdam, from their beginnings as trappers and traders to the fall of the city to those scheming Yankees from the North. Irving told the story as if it were being narrated by Livy. Peter Stuyvesant became Peter the Headstrong. On top of that he mixed in lots of contemporary political lampoon. William the Testy, for example, was a composite figure that combined a the least remembered New Netherlands governor with an easily recognizable parody of Thomas Jefferson; it was the latter's progressive policies that were lambasted as the Disastrous Projects of William the Testy. But what really charmed his contemporaries was the idea that Irving's comedy was creating an American myth at the same time it was mocking the myth-making instinct.
America was still a very young country in 1809, and in literary circles it was popular to lament that we colonials couldn't have an independent literature because we didn't have an independent history. Irving, with tongue only half in cheek, said he was tired of complaining. He was going to create that history. And in a funny way he succeeded. Under the name of Knickerbocker, he did create a sort of mythical past that was later drawn on. But more significantly, the success of the History allowed him to give up his day job and become America's first professional writer.
The two short stories, by the way, with which he is mostly identified today — "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "The Story of Rip Van Winkle" — both came later in his career and distill, as it were, the voice he'd developed in the History. The stories have a similar mixture of history and satire, and like the History, they combine European sources with the American landscape. (Both of them are German folk tales that Irving restages in the "magical" countryside of upstate New York.) And lastly — although most of didn't notice this when we read them in school (or watched them on Disney) — both of them are attributed to "the late Diedrich Knickerbocker."
Here's a representative sample of the History:
The crew of the Goede Vrouw [The Good Woman] being soon reinforced by fresh importations from Holland, the settlement went jollily on, increasing in magnitude and prosperity. The neighboring Indians in a short time became accustomed to the uncouth sound of the Dutch language, and an intercourse gradually took place between them and the newcomers. The Indians were much given to long talks, and the Dutch to long silence — in this particular, therefore, they accommodated each other completely. The chiefs would make long speeches about the big bull, the wabash, and the great spirit; to which the others would listen very attentively, smoke their pipes, and grunt "yah, myn-her" — whereat the poor savages were wonderously delighted. They instructed the new settlers in the best art of curing and smoking tobacco, while the latter, in return, made them drunk with true Hollands — and then learned them the art of making bargains...
The Dutch possession in this part of the globe began now to assume a very thriving appearance and were comprehended under the general title of Nieuw Nederlandts, on account, as the sage Vander Donck observes, of their great resemblance to the Dutch Netherlands — which indeed was truly remarkable, excepting that the former were rugged and mountainous, and the latter level and marshy. About this time the tranquillity of the Dutch colonists was doomed to suffer a temporary interruption. In 1614, Captain Sir Samuel Argal, sailing under a commission from Dale, governor of Virginia, visited the Dutch settlements on Hudson River and demanded their submission to the English crown and Virginian dominion. — To this arrogant demand, as they were in no condition to resist it, they submitted for the time like discreet and reasonable men.
It does not appear that the valiant Argal molested the settlement of Communipaw [Irving's name for the original settlement of Manhattan]; on the contrary, I am told that when his vessel first hove in sight the worthy burghers were seized with such a panic that they fell to smoking their pipes with astonishing vehemence; insomuch that they quickly raised a cloud which, combining with the surrounding woods and marshes, completely enveloped and concealed their beloved village and overhung the fair regions of Pavonia — So that the terrible Captain Argal passed on, totally unsuspicious that a sturdy little Dutch settlement lay snugly couched in the mud under cover of all this pestilent vapor. In commemoration of this fortunate escape, the worthy inhabitants have continued to smoke almost without intermission unto this very day; which is said to be the cause of the remarkable fog that often hangs over Communipaw of a clear afternoon.
Upon the departure of the enemy, our magnanimous ancestors took full six months to recover their wind, having been exceeding discomposed by the consternation and hurry of affairs.
There you have pretty much the story of the 300 page book in a nutshell: New Amsterdam was the last Dutch colony to fall, and so what was later to be New York developed a distinctive cast of character from its illustrious ancestors. It is this story that led to the popular idea that the Dutch are to New York as the Angles and Saxons are to England, and that we could, with some tongue and cheek, call ourselves Knickerbockers in the same way they could refer to themselves as Anglo-Saxons.
In 1809, his kidding tone outraged lots of his fellow Dutch descendants, who were proud of being the oldest families in town — too proud, he thought. But in a funny way, he was prouder than anyone, and beneath the mockery he was preserving a lot of detailed history that had already been forgotten 200 years ago. There was a Captain Argall in fact, and he did maraud in the name of the English. In the incident above, when he was sailing up the Hudson and waving his plonker at the Dutch, he was on his way back from what is now Maine, where he had just destroyed the French settlements on Mont Desert Island in what is now Arcadia National Park. Later on in that same year, 1614, he would go on to do what he's most famous for today: scooting up the Potomac and kidnaping Pocohantas. His career as a villain is clearly still booming. But it was Irving who first cast him in that part, and who emphasized — as has once again been forgotten — that New York did not start out as a British Colony, but rather was conquered by them. (Although to be fair, there was a lot of that going around then. Ten years before the British forced Peter Stuyvesant to give in with a surprise attack, he had gaily conquered New Sweden, down by the Delaware Water Gap, an adventure on which he took more soldiers than the poor Swedes had inhabitants. But since they didn't have an Irving, no one remembers them.)
In a way, Irving was the Tom Wolfe of his age. He was as concerned to invent a new style as to mock the old ones, and he admired and preserved the subcultures he wrote about as much as he made fun of them. Over time the mockery was forgotten and only the veneration remained. "Knickerbocker" became the accepted term for "Olde New Yorke" and began to be used wherever people wanted to add a note of trusted familiarity. In the 1848 Appendix, Irving noted that Knickerbocker had
become a "household word," and used to give the home stamp to everything recommended for popular acceptation, such as Knickerbocker societies, Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker steamboats, Knickerbocker omnibuses, Knickerbocker bread, and Knickerbocker ice.
And where the Dutch elite had once threatened to have him horsewhipped when the book came out, now "New Yorkers of Dutch descent prid[e] themselves upon being 'genuine Knickerbockers.'"
By the end of the century, old families didn't brag about being "genuine" Knickerbockers any more, but were rather simply referred to as the Knickerbocker families. And 30 years ago, when I was growing up in Tenafly (from the old Dutch tiene vliet, meaning ten streams — a polite name for a marsh), Knickerbocker had graduated from a bread label to the name of the main street I crossed on the way to school.
It was therefore but a short step from "giving things the home stamp" to naming New York teams the Knickerbockers. The present day Knicks are only the latest and greatest in a long and noble lineage. As far as I know, the first team to ever be called the Knickerbockers got their name when Irving was still alive. The Knickerbocker Baseball Club was formed in 1842, which was about three years before baseball properly so-called actually existed; the rules of the game were standardized in 1845 by a committee of the club's members. And in June 1846, the first Knickerbockers contested what is largely considered the world's first modern baseball game on the Elysian Fields in Hoboken against their rivals, the New York Club. (If you ever visit Hoboken, you can search out the plaque that marks the spot and lists the names of the teams. Note that the first Knickerbocker team wasn't called the New York Knickerbockers, but simply The Knickerbockers. Strictly speaking, just among us pedants, New York Knickerbockers is a tad redundant.)
Interestingly, of the 11 teams that started the first NBA season in 1946-47, the only two that remain with their original names in their original locations are the New York Knickerbockers and our historical rival, the Boston Celtics. And as if to underline our venerableness, both of us each are named after our venerable ancestors: we after first founders of our City; and they after the first settlers of the country that contributed, at least in 1947, most of their city's inhabitants.
This brings us to the burning question: are we named after those funny pants that only come down to your knees? And the answer is no. Those funny pants that only come down to your knees are named after us. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "[t]he name [knickerbockers] is said to have been given to them because of their resemblance to the knee-breaches of the Dutchmen in Cruikshank's illustrations to W. Irving's History of New York." So there you have it. Knee-length breaches go back the 17th century. But they only got called knickers after the book came out.
So Irving didn't derive the name from short pants. In fact, all he wanted out of the name was that it should sound clangingly Dutch. Although he favored very silly names inside his books in style of Fielding and Sterne, when it came to pseudonyms Irving tended to be straightforward. His first pen name, for a series of "Talk of the Town" type theatre essays he wrote for the Morning Chronicle in 1802, was "Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent." In a similar manner, I think it's clear that Diedrich Knickerbocker was meant to signify exactly what people later took it to mean: Guy-Descended-From-The-Original-Dutchmen, i.e., An Original New Yorker. (If anything, I think the humor was in the first name: Died Rich.)
Finally, it might be argued that since most of us don't descend from the Dutch, we haven't the right to call ourselves Knickerbockers. But that is just a jealous quibble. How many white people in this country descend from the British, never mind from the Angles or Saxons? Damned few. And yet we call ourselves Anglo-Saxons. And in the same sense all New Yorkers, and all Knicks fans, are Knickerbockers.