Welcome to the discussion thread for the story, The Wide World of Disease-Based Dutch Profanity. You can share your comments and thoughts about the story in the conversation below.
First I’d like to thank you for writing another interesting and entertaining story. However, id like to voice my own opinion as a Dutch national on the following statement. “By far the most common of the Dutch medical curses is “cancer,” or kanker, which in the Netherlands, as in many other places, is among the most common causes of death. In practice, it is a pretty mild swear word, and a versatile one” Espessialy focusing on the statement that using the word cancer is considered mild. From my own experience, using the word cancer is frowned upon by most Dutch citizens and, using the word to swear with, or to use it’s versatility to add weight to a statement is a major no-go for the people I’ve met. Yes a lot of people use it, but you simply cannot say it without creating a lot of frowns towards you.
The use of medical terms as a form of cussing isn’t just Dutch. My father was first-generation born Polish and talked Polish at home growing up. I never heard him use English words when he cursed - and his favorite was “cholera” (kuh-LER-a). And if you go to Google Translate and type “Damn” into English, “Cholera” appear in the Polish box!
My grandmother, on the other hand, when she thought you were the lowest form of life imaginable would say “damn ukraiński!” LOL!
I was really surprised and even somewhat shocked when I saw the title of this article, until I started reading it and realized the article was not about the Dutch language but about the Dutch and their behaviour. I’m a native speaker of Dutch as well, but I don’t live in Holland (yes, I know they don’t like the word but it would be very unkind to call it the Netherlands, as this is a word dating from the seventeenth century and includes Belgium). And that is where the difference lies. I live in Flanders (which is in Belgium) and we would never ever use the very shocking swear words you are mentioning. They are typically words used in Holland, in the north. Do you know that people from Zeeland, which is south of the province of Holland, object very much to being called ‘Hollanders’? They don’t want to be associated with them. Similarly, your reference to Sinterklaas and his ‘slaves’ became an issue in recent years in Holland, but not in Flanders, for the simple reason that we have never considered the saint’s helper as a slave. This is a typical Holland Dutch idea. In fact, the whole controversy is meaningless when you realize that the black man comes from Nordic mythology and had nothing to do with colonialism. So, as you can see, there is a difference in attitude between the north and the south, one that has developed over the years. PS It’s not all black and white. For instance, 80 percent of the inhabitants of Haarlem are of Flemish origin, and I myself have Dutch ancestors.
Regarding the concept of Dutch cleanliness: my mother, in the U.S., used the expression “the scrubby Dutch.” It was a mark of admiration.
It is fascinating. I know both the Dutch language and English are West Germanic. And when it comes to outright cursing I believe here in the U.S. we have some good ones, but one that tickles me to death is Espero que te follen un pez which translates from Spanish to English as I hope you get fucked by a fish.
““So there’s a certain level of what might seem like outright racism or homophobia or a lack of general graciousness to people who are not like you.” The Netherlands is more than three-quarters Dutch, and the Dutch are, like people in most European countries, grappling with how to speak to people who don’t look or act like them, but who are now part of their nation.”
Grappling? You’ve had time. This article didn’t have to go into it but the author decided to blanket Dutch racism and homophobia as a cultural misunderstanding. Every country built on the slave trade must admit it and stop acting as though the obligation to be kind to all people is some brand new experiment you’re just not used to. This article took a left turn and casually slipped in normalizing hate. WTF?!
I think that you are confusing ‘de lage landen’/‘The low countries’ which is Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands with ‘Nederland’. Holland is just the two provinces (north and south Holland). People from inside that region (the Randstad) generally think that they are all that matters and the rest is farmland, which is why they say Holland and people from outside it get annoyed by it. I can assure you that if you call it Holland to a Frisian person, they will get as angry as someone from Zeeland.
I agree that Vlaams is much more decent in the regards of cursing and using honorifics. Like I honestly can’t tell when Belgians are angry, because they keep addressing me with ‘u’. But afaik, Vlaams is a dialect of Dutch and does not count as ‘ABN’. As ‘kankeren’ is an official word, not even marked as vulgar. Gratis woordenboek | Van Dale (which suprises me)
So technically you can do this in ABN? Language is weird.
On the whole I agree with what you are saying, although I am perfectly aware of the difference between Holland and Nederland. I only wanted to point out the difference between the Dutch spoken and written in the north and the Dutch spoken and written in the south. This is in fact not Vlaams, as Vlaams as such does not exist, you only have Flemish dialects in the same way as you have dialects in the north. I’m talking about the difference between let’s say the Dutch spoken by Dutch news readers and Flemish news readers. I’m afraid the two Dutch forms are more and more growing apart. I looked up combinations with ‘kanker’ in Glosbe (because I don’t have a Van Dale here) and of course you have words like ‘kankerspecialist’ and ‘kankergezwel’, but I also found words like ‘kankerwijf, kankerjood, kankermongool, kankermoe, kankerlijer, kankergeweldig en kankergoed’. Well, I don’t think that anybody in Flanders would dream (or even recognize) the latter. They are typically Hollands and I fear that they are even accepted as Dutch in a Van Dale. Similarly, when I looked up a Greek expression in a Greek-Dutch dictionary (put together by 5 Dutch and 1 ‘Flemish’ experts) I found the translation ‘Hij is mooi op de koffie gekomen’, which to me was Chinese. But when I looked up ‘taks’ I found ‘Hij is aan zijn taks gekomen’ (which I didn’t immediately understand) and next to ‘taks’ meaning ‘tax’ was written ‘Zuid Nederlands’. A nice example of Dutch arrogance, I thought. Pronunciation, too, is drifting apart as the Dutch are pronouncing voiced sounds as voiceless and vice versa (+ s as sj, and sj as s) so that you get ‘de Flaamsje vanvare’ and ‘het kasjteel fan Ferzalje’.
My point was and is, you can’t generalize about Dutch. There are two forms and they are steadily growing apart in the same way as Dutch and Afrikaans have become two different languages. The reason is, of course, political and geographical isolation as a motor of diversification (as was pointed out in a previous article).
I have an issue with that part for the opposite reason. To me its ridiculous that we get blanketed as racist by people who never spent time in the country. Yes, the country has some very racist people, like any other country. Yes, there are people who blame foreigners for everything, like any other country. Despite this, the country is a massive melting pot of cultures and immigration, to a larger degree than many other countries that I have been to. Sure there are more progressive countries, but again, like most other countries.
You seem to be under the impression that we all want to go back to the time where we chain up anyone who is off-color. Perhaps you should visit the place and talk to the locals before making such assumptions. I’m not even going to address the homophobia, again read up on the issue please. We were the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage.
I completely agree with you, but I don’t understand your second paragraph. I grew up with coloured people in Indonesia when I was young (after the Dutch were kicked out - my father was a doctor there in an area without any white people) and I can’t even imagine people looking down on coloured people. I just don’t understand people who are racist.
I’d say most people are like that. There’s always bad apples unfortunately. And it’s the same as whatever race looking down on white people really like is the case in Africa and probably other places.
With regard to the claim that the Dutch culture celebrates Santa with slaves : this is absolutely incorrect. The feast of “Sinterklaas” ( Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus) features " Zwarte Piet" ( Black Pete). This character usually has a black face, is dressed in a colourful outfit (mostly 16th century style)and is the one that punishes the bad children and distributes the sweets to the good children.
“Zwarte Piet” has never been a slave, he is always regarded as the valued assistant of
“ Sinterklaas” .
There are several theories about his origins . As already noted by benedictdesmet, there are theories that claim Black Pete is descending from the Norse mythology . Another popular theory , especially in Flanders, is that they represent the Spanish Muslims that were converted (to Christianity) by Saint Nicholas. They were called “ Moren ” which means “ Blacks”, not because they were actually black African people but because people from Spain and from the Maghreb tend to be darker than people in the Netherlands and Belgium. Yet another theory claims that the reason Black Pete is black is because he goes down the chimney. None of us considers the rooftop dancing scene in “ Mary Poppins “ to be racist, do we ?
I agree that it’s very probably some ancient pre Christian tradition as the beared man / black helper trope are old and wide spread. There is a wonderful series of documentaries about this by Arnold Jan Schreer. I however also believe that they were at some point influenced by slaves, slave trade and black stereotypes. So I’m not against changes that take those away. (Lips, curly hair, etc) apart from that I’m very pro tradition and preservation of culture, but I’m also so tired of the yearly circus that gets spun up around the holiday. Very sad because some of.my best childhood memories are form sinterklaas celebrations.
Much more creative than s*** and f*** !
Very well put!
This is definitely going too far.
AMSTERDAM - Bij de politie Amsterdam is aangifte gedaan tegen de rapper Akwasi naar aanleiding van zijn toespraak op de Dam op 1 juni. Akwasi zei daar dat hij bij het tegenkomen van een Zwarte Piet ’hem hoogstpersoonlijk op zijn gezicht trapt’. Meerdere aangiften volgen.
Personally I feel like its not about ZP for most people any more. It is some kind of general cultural battle where ZP is used as ‘the line’. I understand both sides, and it is difficult.
My parents are immigrants, but I was born and raised in the NL. We have our own culture and practices, but we never demanded days off on them or refused to participate in local ones. I myself have very fond memories of Sinterklaas for example.
On the other hand, my parents have friends who don’t speak the language and cluster together in isolated groups to complain about how they are not welcomed by society. I have a very hard time respecting that. Unfortunately, there seem to be more and more people who think like this and I feel like this is the problem.
Is the NL to blame for this? For many groups, absolutely. Especially the ones they brought in as labourers and never bothered to integrate. This leads to bubble communities and that gives a blueprint for other groups to do the same. But on the other hand you really can’t expect a country to bend over backwards to remove everything that might offend your culture and beliefs.
I’d simply like to challenge the translation being used here, of ‘Get [insert disease]’. I’ve lived here for 20 years and am married to a Dutch citizen, who tells me, 'Sure, we might say ‘Cancer off!’ or ‘Typhoid off! (Kanker op! Typhus op!), but we would NEVER tell someone to GET a disease. So I find this translation kinda’ shocking. Because it’s totally not my experience of the Dutch people, to really wish evil upon another, in this way.
If you look at the old school meaning, they basically request you leave due to [insert disease] so die of it. Also stuff like ‘kanker lijer’ is old speak for ‘cancer sufferer’, and ‘pokkewijf’ is ‘woman/hag with pocks’. So in the exact etymological sense what they say is true, but its not what the language means anymore.
It’s the same as calling someone a ‘bastard’ in english, nobody is insinuating that that the person is a child born out of wedlock, and most ppl wouldn’t even see that as something terrible. But the word just means ‘person who is annoying me in some way’ now. Same with ‘goddamn[ed]’ I really doubt that people are genuinely trying to summon the wrath of God upon whatever they are cursing.
Americans, and by extension AO love to generalize other cultures and translate customs and language literally. I have no idea why they do it, I guess because the US is such a mono-culture when compared to other continents. You’d be surprised how often I get asked either about drugs or even for them, cuz all Dutch people both users and dealers regardless of the country they are in and the rules that apply there.