Once upon a time, many years ago, I had just moved to the lowlands and was taking my newly purchased bike for a ride around the big city of Amsterdam. Overwhelmed, I happened to accidentally, but fairly dramatically, cut-off another Dutch cyclist. The man was furious, stopped his bike, and began to curse and yell loudly at me in Dutch. Not speaking any Dutch at this point, it sounded mostly like a mass of angry guttural sounds, but one word in his tirade jumped out at me…SYPHILIS! WTF?!? Was he talking to me? Did he just tell me I had syphilis?!? Huh?? What?!?
I got back on my bike, confused, and headed to work. Over lunch of karne melk and sandwiches with hagelslag I told my Dutch colleague the story. He stared at me blankly and said “You made him angry so he wished syphilis on you”.
Dutch people swear with diseases. Often with old dreaded diseases from the past. In fact, they go so far as to make angry bold statements wishing these diseases upon you or cursing you with a particular deadly ailment. The more serious the disease in question, the more seriously you have clearly angered them. If you are going to live in the Netherlands for any amount of time, you had better brush up on your knowledge of rare diseases from years gone by. Typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, small pox, the plague and more modernly, the Big C (kanker), are all bound to rear their ugly heads. Perhaps with that lot of dreaded diseases, a curse of syphilis wasn’t so harsh…
This “swearing-by-disease” is in fact a unique Dutch trait. No other language has similar curses. It’s odd and it’s strange, and quite frankly pretty darn harsh (“I hope you get smallpox and die” – certainly doesn’t beat around the bush, does it?!?)
Of course Dutch people also have an array of other dirty swear words comparable to other languages. You have your trusty standards like klootzak (scrotum), pisvlek (piss stain) and godverdomme (god damn), but nothing is quite as shocking as “Sterf aan kanker!” (Literally: Die of cancer).
Now, now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not like Dutch people go around all day randomly telling people to drop dead of a certain ailment. But, if you are
lucky unlucky enough to be witness to a serious argument you may happen to hear some 16th century diseases make there way into the fight! Now go, f!@#-off and catch herpes!