A Brief Introduction to the Semantics of Dutch Profanity: Categories and Notes on Usage
28 March 2000
Although I was raised bilingual and have spoken Dutch all my life, I was around thirteen years old when I first realized how much (a rather great deal) of my Dutch vocabulary was, to put it mildly, impolite. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about the ruder and cruder parts of my Dutch lexicon, and not just to become more fluent in its usage. Although I do not doubt that my experiences have helped me swear more effectively in Dutch, I can now also explain exactly how it is I do so. In this paper I discuss the various semantic categories of Dutch swear words, how they are used and how bad they really are, and do a bit of comparing and contrasting between Dutch and English profanity.
Types of "Bad Words" and Their Uses
"You taught me language; and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse."
---Caliban (William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2)
Swearing and cursing require a certain minimal command of a language, including the necessary vocabulary, and so the first section of my paper is dedicated to what I consider the most important categories of Dutch swear words.
Although the topic of my paper is Dutch profanity, and I probably learned some at home (by stealthily eavesdropping on my parents, who of course never swore when they knew I was within earshot), it was with Dutch-speaking peers that I really honed my swearing skills. From them I learned that certain English "bad words" were part of the Dutch cursing lexicon as well, which might never have occurred to me at my bilingual home, where the use of English swear words was likely to be due to code-switching or borrowing. During the summer and winter vacations I spent in the Netherlands discovering and rediscovering my extended family and improving my Dutch, all the kids my age in my grandparents' town got a chance to practice their
English and teach me their slang --- and of course, we devoted considerable time and effort to swearing in both languages. In this way I learned that certain swear words I had learned and thought of as English curses could be used in Dutch as well.
Many of my peers had pretty significant English profanity lexicons (probably from watching American movies with Dutch subtitles) and most were curious about the meanings of the "bad words" they knew. This could be disappointing now and then, like the time when it turned out
"shit" was "shit" (albeit with the vowel a bit higher and tenser in Dutch, where the word was also more likely to be used simply as an exclamation rather than as a noun or verb, as it is in English). The most crushing blow, however, was when I told my friends Maroesja and Miriam that the literal meaning of another English swear word used widely in Dutch, or at least among my Dutch peergroup, was simply "female dog." To use Maroesja's words, they had thought that it was "iets veel leuker" (i.e. something much more interesting/fun, and probably more obscene). But for the rest of that summer, we used "teef" (the Dutch word for a female dog) and "bitch" interchangably, which was fun. Dutch is a language that tends to encourage wordplay, which makes for a lot more fun when swearing, as I will discuss later on.
My friend Maroesja's disappointment that the literal meaning of a certain curse was less "leuk" than she had hoped is indicative of the fact that there are many different levels of fun/obscenity in Dutch swear words. This is most clearly evident in the Dutch system of
describing body parts. There is a polite and impolite name for many parts of the anatomy in Dutch, and on top of that there are certain names of body parts that are so rude they are definitely swear words.
Simply stated, Dutch has a set of names for body parts that are used to describe those parts on people (e.g. "hoofd," "hand," "voet"), and another set that is used to describe those parts on animals (e.g. "kop," "klauw," "poot"). The animal part names can be used to describe parts of the human anatomy, but to do so is a bit crude (somewhat like telling someone to get their paws off you).
Incidentally, the examples given were the polite and rude forms of "head," "hand," and "foot," respectively. They would probably not be used interchangeably with the names for people parts in polite conversation (though they could be used in politely discussing the health of someone's pets or livestock, and that would be perfectly acceptable).
Finally, just like English, Dutch has a set of words for certain "dirty" parts of the anatomy (i.e. excretory organs and male and female secondary sex characteristics), and these are only used as swear words. Some of these have English counterparts --- for example, the Dutch word "kut" is just as rude as its English equivalent, "cunt." Others are not as easily translated --- there is no word equivalent to "asshole" in Dutch, but "klootzak," which refers to the scrotum, is used similarly. As in English, these are generally used as derogatory names to call people you do not like (a good example is one of my favorite insults, which is equally rude in both languages: "stomme trut" = "dumb cunt"). Many of these words can also be made into gerund-type verbs by adding the prefix ge- (e.g. "gekloot," "gekut," "gelul"), at which point the general meaning is like "screwing" or "dicking" around, but literally closer to talking about "assholing around," as silly as that sounds in English1). Along these same lines, one particularly fun expression for wasting time is "kut kammen" --- literally, cunt combing. "Kut" and "Klote" (the adjective form of "kloot") are also universally used as obscene prefixes, much the same as "fuckin'-" and "fucking-" in American (or "bloody" in British English). Although I have rarely heard these words used to describe the actual body parts that are their literal meanings, perhaps I would be more familiar with this use if I had more experience with Dutch pornography (or feminist manifestoes that reclaim female-oriented swear words).
For me, the most interesting aspect of Dutch profanity is the vast array of swear words that are disease names. A
common way of expressing one's distaste or displeasure at someone or something is to say that it gives you a disease or a pain (or in general causes illness). The more serious and life-threatening the ailment, the worse the curse. The closest English equivalent to something like the Dutch "Krijg nou de pokke!" (literally "Get the pox!") I can come to is the archaic "a pox on you" (or what or
whomever). Shakespearean English is full of expressions of this sort, including Mercutio's dying words "A plague o' both your houses" (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene I) and Caliban's "The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!" (The Tempest: Act I, Scene 2). The only more modern example I can think of is the scene in the movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which the film's transvestite and transsexual protagonists discover that their bus has been spraypainted with the hateful message "AIDS FUCKERS GO HOME." All told, the use of diseases as swear words is very rare in modern English, and very common in Dutch, though I do not know if it is a uniquely Dutch form of profanity.
You can insult people very seriously in Dutch by saying they have a disease --- for example, "pokkelijder" (pox sufferer). Perhaps the most important thing to note about the use of disease names as curses in Dutch (and one that I did not learn until I seriously hurt someone's feelings) is that when you invoke a disease name to swear, you really are talking about the disease. So if you call someone "kankerbitch" (cancerous bitch, to give the closest English
approximation), you mean that they have and cause cancer,
literally. And if you happen, like I once did, to say that to someone who has had close relatives die of cancer --- well, all I can say is watch out! You may well have evoked the disease and all the specific personal horrors it has caused, and the response is likely to be quite severe. One final note from my personal experiences with the use of disease names as profanity is that I know the Dutch names of some diseases only as swear words. From their usage --- the fact that "tering", "pleuris", and "k(e)lere" (perhaps also spelled "koelere"; I've heard it pronounced many different ways) are things that one "gets" when annoyed or displeased by something, I know that these words are disease names, yet I have no idea what diseases they are.2
I know of very few Dutch swear words that are verbs, although there are plenty of rude ways of describing various physical activities, from eating to more interesting and fun things. Unfortunately, the more fun and interesting things get, the less related vocabulary I am truly familiar with, and so I am not very qualified to discuss the obscenity of rude words for various activities. I intend to remedy my lexical shortcomings in the future, preferably by living in the Netherlands for some time and finding native speakers to live with (the swearing at each other part should arise naturally soon enough). Similarly, although I do not doubt that Dutch has its fair share of insulting words for homosexuals, the only one I know translates roughly to "sissy" (or maybe "pansy"), which is pretty mild. Again, more experience with the language will probably correct the lexical gaps I discovered when thinking about what kinds of vulgarity I could use to address this subject in Dutch.
Finally, now that we have arrived at the topic, Dutch seems to lack a word for "fuck" --- what a tragedy. There are plenty of rude words for copulation ("neuken" and "naaien" are the two that leap to mind) or any of a number of other sex acts ("pijpen" and "beffen" are vulgar words for oral sex performed on a male or a female, respectively), but none as all-encompassing as everybody's favorite
Anglo-Saxon monosyllable. I have mixed feelings about this; as an English speaker, I find myself missing this word, yet I know that the richness of Dutch vulgar language more than compensates for it.3 So I will leave my opinion about this fact for another time, and move on to a discussion of "verdomme" and its other forms.
Basically, "verdomme" means "damn." It is generally used as an exclamation, but its adjective form (the past participle, I believe) can also be used to describe "damned" things. I suspect that in English the use of "damn" as an adjective came from the use of "damned," but I know of no evidence that suggests a similar evolution occurring in Dutch. You can invoke the deity of your choice in proclaiming damnation or describing something as "verdomd" (that may not be spelled correctly; I have never seen the past participle written). Other ways of emphasizing "verdomme" and its forms include stringing other ver- words in front of it (many disease words can be made into ver- forms, such as "verpest" (plagued or plague-ridden) and
"verrot" (rotten). Or if you're working with "godverdomme" you can insert a string of impressive-sounding adjectives that start with the always-terrifying Dutch voiced velar fricative "g" in there. Finally, you sometimes hear "potverdomme" from people who refuse to take their Lord's name in vain, which leads nicely into a paragraph on religious swearing (we'll get back to euphemisms and other ways of almost swearing in Dutch later on).
Dutch, like English, invokes God or Jesus for emphasis when swearing. The latter is not just an exclamation in Dutch, however. "Jesus" can be a prefix, just like the adjective form of a disease name or "dirty" body part. You can say someone is "Jesus-sterk" (literally, Jesus-strong) much in the same way a speaker of some dialects of California English might say "hella strong" (though I
suspect using the name of God's Only Son makes for stronger emphasis). The meaning is closer to "Jesus, so strong" than "as strong as Jesus."3 As a transition into the next segment, I will mention that Dutch speakers use "Joost," "jeetje" and "tjonge" much like English speakers use euphemisms like "gosh," "jeez," and "sheesh" --- to avoid actual blasphemy.
As I mentioned before, there are many different levels of verbal rudeness in Dutch (such as the use of animal parts names to describe the human anatomy, which is rude but not completely unacceptable in informal speech). There are also lots of expressions that are equivalent to the English "goshdarnit" --- they sound a great deal like the swear words they are meant to evoke (and preferably sound a little silly as well, e.g. "potverdorie" and the ever-amusing "potverdriedubbeltjes" which translates to something like "gosh darn three dimes"). Finally, instead of evoking a disease name, you can say that something bad or annoying "gives you something" or "causes something" instead of evoking the actual disease name. My grandmother does this all the time, so I suspect it is acceptable in polite company who know each other well. The remainder of my paper is devoted to the usage of Dutch profanity.
Notes on the Usage of Dutch Profanity
Dutch is a great language for compounding; in general, nouns are easily compounded together and many that are not easily compounded can be converted to an adjectival form that is easily added to the front of a noun or verb. In this way, disease names or other swear words are often compounded onto the object of one's distaste or displeasure. As I mentioned before, this is quite similar to the use of "fucking-" or "fuckin'-" as derogatory prefixes all over the place in English, only Dutch provides the resourceful curser with many more options. Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) there seems to be a limit to how many adjective-form prefixes one can string before a word, and there may or
may not be a preferred order of their use. (That last is probably a function of how late it is and the limitations of my lexicon, which as I repeatedly mention is native, but not as extensive as I would like in the vulgarity department.) One final way of making any of the "worst" body parts a little worse (or a little funnier; considerable value is placed on humorous swearing in Dutch) is to prefix them with
the adjective/possessive form of an animal name. In English you might call soneone a "horse's ass"; you could do exactly the same in Dutch ("paardenlul," which basically means "horse's dick").
Another general feature of Dutch that has unique manifestations in its profanity is the fact that it has many colorful idiomatic expressions (remember "kut kammen"?). The use of disease names as swear words (and the modification of the rudest body part names for use as verbs) are some obvious examples of this. Others seem to have come from the fact that Dutch linguistic culture allows and even
encourages a lot of wordplay, and alliteration is a favorite game. Although alliteration is powerful in English swearing as well, in my experience it is rarely (if ever) used as powerfully, humorously, and creatively as it is in Dutch (trust me, "god gloeiend godverdomme" is a terrifying stream of invective to have aimed at you, something like "god damn fiddle-fucking asshole," which my mother once invented in an attempt to come up with an equivalent).
To conclude, it is my opinion that Dutch is a wonderful language to swear in. It has many different levels of vulgarity for different levels of register. It takes the idea of the body (and sex in particular) as being dirty and expands it to include all sorts of horrible ailments --- because, after all, dirty bodies are prone to getting sick. Combined with the Dutch penchant for colorful idiom, alliteration, and other word play, and a few loanwords from English, and hopefully my enthusiasm seems justifiable.
Since posting this, I have received numerous /msg's from noders wishing to discuss the finer points of swearing in Dutch. Some of their suggestions have been incorporated into my writeup as footnotes; many thanks to everyone who offered comments.
Albert Herring says "'arsing around' is perfectly normal usage in British English.
ThePope has informed me that k(o)elere = cholera (I should've figured that one out) and tering is an archaic name for tuberculosis, and contributed pleuris to the list of disease swear words of unknown meaning.*
*Thanks to archie2, who says "pleuris" comes from "pleuritis", a lung disease of some sort.**
**According to Chelman, "Pleuris (or pleuritis) is actually called more or less the same in English i.e. pleurisy. It is indeed a lung disease... Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura. There are two pleurae, one around each lung. The pleura is a two-ply membrane that both encloses the lung and lines the chest cavity." Neat.
rp suggests my ambivalence towards "neuken" as far as its strength relative to "fuck" may stem from the fact that foreign curses often lack the power of swear words in your native language. I consider myself bilingual, and I honestly couldn't say which is my first language. I'll have to think about it a bit more, and I stand by my applause of "fuck" and all its glorious syntactic and semantic variability, but rp's suggestion is an interesting possibility nonetheless.
Actually, a better analogue can be found in use of "ass" as an intensifier, so thanks to Acid Dragon as well.