Any person, any place, any context

The Dutch delight in swearing in English and they do so unembarrassed – and often with inaccuracy. “What a shitty weather!” exclaimed the prim mother of my six-year-old’s best friend as she dropped her daughter off the other day, removing a rain-soaked jacket. I winced, then laughed, then checked furtively over my shoulder to see if the kids were listening.

There seems to be some kind of immunity in the Netherlands to the offence of foreign swear words, as if swearing in another language filters the effect. It doesn’t. As a native English speaker, I am always startled by the liberal use of English swear words and the bizarre range of contexts they crop up in.

As well as the verbal pleasures of profanity, the Dutch enjoy incorporating it into their business names. Take the example of T.I.T.S. (This Is The Shit) clothing store, Bakery Bastards, Burger Bitch, and the lovingly-named Shitgroup.nl, who will get rid of your horse manure for a fee. An unlikely branding strategy in the US or UK, but here the worst elements of our language are relished and deemed more cool than offensive.

The Fad for ‘Fuck’

It gets worse.

I might one day get used to a smattering of minor curse words, but the big ‘F’, really?

Since moving here from the UK in 2009, I have been surprised by how much the Dutch love the word Fuck. And you can’t escape it. Doing a spot of clothes shopping? Beware:

Fuck the sale

Visiting a gallery? Watch out:

Fuck art

You might even just be going for a salad.

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The fad for Fuck is all around.

Even intellectuals espouse it. Vrij Nederland is a respectable weekly news magazine but they don’t mind dropping the F-Bomb on their front cover.

Image864

Why should they? Even politicians favour a ‘Fuck’ word or two. When former Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, wore his ‘Fuck Drugs’ T-shirt on his 2010 campaign trail, the only thing the Dutch were worried about was the reaction of other countries. The Dutch themselves were quite at home with a bit of foul language, even from their leaders.

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Even the radio swears at me in English

TV and radio in the Netherlands also seem to be a swearing free-for-all. There’s no obvious watershed and you won’t hear a bleep censor like back home.

When I first moved here, I was enjoying a bit of easy listening in the kitchen one morning when the Dutch DJ piped up, “Dat was Lenny fucking Kravitz.” That misplaced word, hanging there nonchalantly within the singer’s name, killed the weekend mood of the radio show and left me baffled. It was as if the f-word was some kind of enhancement; I didn’t get it. It was kind of funny but it was also a bit shocking.

In English, we use our swearwords with purpose. They can be almost any part of speech but they must have an emphatic function. This is not necessary in Dutch. You can pop a Fuck in almost anywhere; it will almost always improve your sentence.

So it seems, to be truly Dutch, you have to be speak a little bit of English too. Gratuitous swearing in inappropriate contexts is pretty fucking Dutch. And we expatriates had better bloody well get used to it.

p.s. don’t even get us started on Dutch swear words – that is a whole other topic! 


Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a writer and the content manager for Amsterdam Mamas. Originally from the UK, she moved to the Netherlands in 2009, enticed by the beauty of its capital city and her love for a man who refused to return to London. Follow her on Twitter.

46 Responses

  1. Ronald

    As if Americans and the English never use the F-word…

    Reply
    • Leny Vanderjagt

      Yes, but as they said, it usually has a purpose. When I first heard my brother in law say it in a sentence I almost fell over. I wonder if GE even knows what the word means. It was ok when I visited in Holland, but when he used it here while visiting us in Canada, I actually told him that it was proper English and not used in the right context. But what bothered me more anything, he didn’t say it right. He said it in Dutch phonetically. I wanted to correct him, me who hardly ever swears. An English speaking person from the UK, US, or Canada wouldn’t even be able to use that “u”! Like so many other Dutch vowels.

      Reply
  2. Ferdy

    I live in Ireland and the Irish don’t seem to have a lot of problems with the curse words either. My American colleagues seem to be less inclined to curse publicly though. I think in the Netherlands it’s caused by media consumption, as most popular series have people using curse words all the time and it comes of as ‘cool like on TV’ when you use it when you’re young and it just sticks when you get older. I think in general Dutch people curse a lot though.

    Reply
    • Henk

      That’s another difference; you’re using the word ‘curse’, the direct translation of ‘vloek’ in Dutch, but in English that’s not the same as ‘swearing’.

      Swearing is anything deemed inappropriate, from the word ‘bloody’ to ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’. Cursing someone is more like saying ‘god damn you’ (godverdomme!) and stuff like that. What we consider swearing in the UK is simply bad language in NL, there’s no translation for ‘swearing’.

      Reply
      • Stella

        Eigenlijk zou dat schelden zijn.

    • ahthatsgrand

      I’m an Irish woman who likes to swear and even I was shocked when I first arrived to Amsterdam 2 months ago. I think it has something to do with the tone and volume here and lack of singy songy intonation that native English speakers possess that can make it sound harsher than it was intended. In Ireland our accent is quite musical making them almost endearing (I’ve been told) – it’s so part and parcel of our speech that you wouldn’t notice it after a while. On top of that, we contract swear words so instead of “fucking”, we’ll say “fuckin'” or we soften the word by using “shite”, “feck” and “jaysus” instead. We don’t swear to shock or sound edgy and we know when it’s not appropriate. I can’t help but wince when my young Dutch students sprinkle their sentences so profusely with fucks in class naive to how they sound to non Dutch. It’s a wee bit OTT. Maybe I should give classes on how to swear with style.

      Reply
  3. Eric

    “[…] as if swearing in another language filters the effect. It doesn’t.” – But it does. The literal translation of the words fuck and shit is not something the Dutch use to swear with, thus greatly diminishing the ‘weight’ the words have for us. Swearing in English is much like using a replacement word for something that ís offensive. E.g. how the English would say “gosh darn it” instead of “god damn it”, or “fudge” instead of “fuck”.

    “It was as if the f-word was some kind of enhancement.” – Spot on, that’s exactly how we use English swearwords in our daily language. Understandably it might not be perceived that way to native English speakers, but again, the weight of the words change drastically depending on the language it’s used in. I’m also pretty confident that English/American television does not censor out e.g. Spanish words like “mierda”. Apply that same logic on the Dutch not censoring English.

    A great example of words that weight differently is the c-word. A big taboo in the English language, but the literal translation is something a Dutch nine year old might use when he/she stubs her toe, and no-one would bat an eye.

    Besides, if you compare it to some of the common Dutch swearwords (cancer, typhoid, tuberculosis) the English words aren’t THAT bad!

    Reply
  4. dutchiewhoswearsinenglish

    Dutchies swear a lot in general, not just in english. It’s sometimes just easier in english because the words don’t hold as much meaning compared to their dutch counterparts because well… the word itself doesn’t actually mean anything in dutch.

    It drove me absolutely crazy when I lived in the U.S. that everything and everybody got babied so much on their language. I was so -fucking- relieved when I came back home and the songs on the radio weren’t bleeped. It’s just a word, it’s in a song. Everybody and their grandma understands context. Of course there are still ‘rules’ when it comes to swearing, like… don’t do it at a person, because at that point you’re just being a dick. But enthusiastically telling your friend about this fucking sick concert you went to? I don’t really see the problem… I don’t know, I’m not very sensitive to language things in general but I just don’t really understand the big whoop. (Although, I do enjoy myself a good silly replacement swearword like geez louise or shut the front door. It makes me feel very ‘midwestern soccer mom’)

    Reply
  5. Elroy

    Oh, we do love our own swear words too. However, your observation about English swear words being perceived as less offensive is spot on.

    The fact that Americans are always boasting about their free speech, while having ‘forbidden words’ on television never ceases to amuse us. Why not use the words that best express your opinion? Why the bleebs, especially on late night television? Are they special snowflakes that get traumatised by words?

    I’m happy to see however that Dutch children’s programs avoid using swearwords in any language; although some might slip by during live broadcasts.

    The simplest explanation is that English swear words do not mean the same thing over here as they do in the US and UK. They have become part of the normal vocabulary. That is not only a problem for immigrants in The Netherlands, it’s also something I need to be very conscious of when abroad or on the phone for business.

    Reply
  6. Erwin

    As a Dutchie who grew up here, there are two causes I can think of.

    1) American films and TV shows are not dubbed over, they are shown with subtitles. Apart from content aimed at children, these films are usually loaded with expletives, especially uttered by the cool people or the funny people in it. These expletives were not censored, because the Dutch do not have the same sensibility to swear words in general, let alone foreign swear words which do not carry the same cringe factor as they do to native speakers of that language. So it became cool to swear in English, because that was what the on-screen idols did as well. The Dutch actually find it quite funny and pedantic that in America itself, where these films originate from, the expletives *are* censored out. Which is actually just the more reason to use these words here, because it apparently annoys Americans. And as a tiny nation that can’t really punch above its weight anymore, there is no better way to feel good about yourself than to annoy Americans by stealing their own swear words and using them in ways that they deem inappropriate. Well that, and excelling in sports that no one else cares about, such as ice skating 🙂

    2) The Dutch pride in being stubborn and politically incorrect. No one tells the Dutch what to do. That is why they were such good tradesmen, in slaves, among other things. Earning a buck at the expense of someone else was never a problem. That is also why they won’t let anyone tell them that Zwarte Piet is racist, for example. So if people take offense at swearing, all the more reason to do it. It stems from the same origin as the Dutch directness. Nuance never was a well-developed Dutch trait, because it is not very efficient to worry about sensitivities. Better get used to it, I can’t see it changing any time soon… For better, or for worse 🙂

    Reply
    • CoveredInBees

      I think point number 2 has really hit the nail on the head in particular. The way a lot of Dutch people gleefully swear in English reminds me of teenagers who swear as a show of low-level rebellion. The “fucking suck concert” example a few comments above isn’t offensive to me but I would think the speaker was rather juvenile and lacking in vocabulary.

      Reply
    • Orka

      As a foreigner living in the Netherlands with a Dutch wife, I find your comments refreshingly amusing. (I like your comments about ice skating, and the lack of “nuance”. – didn’t want to say it myself, out loud.)

      Reply
  7. james igoe

    Do you realize that the word actually rooted in 16th century low Dutch? From Google:

    early 16th century: of Germanic origin (compare Swedish dialect focka and Dutch dialect fokkelen ); possibly from an Indo-European root meaning ‘strike,’ shared by Latin pugnus ‘fist.’

    Reply
    • Leny Vanderjagt

      When I was a little Dutch immigrant girl in Canada from Holland, some things always embarrassed me, like if your name was Bill! And in Holland I would feel sorry for guys whose name was Dick. LOL. I’m grown up now!

      Reply
      • Leny Vanderjagt

        Also, the Fokker Company name made me cringe! Especially the way it is pronounced in English. Remember, I was only 8 years old!

  8. Hannebuddika

    As a Dutch girl who grew up in America I can say that we are used to Americans using profanity in their everyday speech. For example- that was fucking good. In that context it could easily be taken as a word with positive connotations. Your offense is only a reflection of how you understand the word to mean. Just saying

    Reply
  9. Henk

    Haha – this is so true! And, it’s the same with music. Bleeping out swear words in English songs? No fucking way! Very small kids don’t really understand what’s being said anyway, and older ones better get bloody used to swearing and blending in!

    Reply
  10. David Silvertand

    The F* word is not only becoming non-vulgar in the Dutch culture. Even the French, despite they’re not really champions in English, and especially the youth are vulgarising the expression WTF. Which for foreigners can sometimes be offensive, but for the French it’s quite commonly accepted to be used, and it’s meaning something like ‘what a crap’, ‘whatever’, ‘non-sense’.

    See this article from ‘Le Monde’:
    ” WTF est, selon notre bon dico, “un acronyme anglais qui signifie What the Fuck – littéralement : “c’est quoi ce bordel ?”. En français, la vulgarité de l’expression anglaise disparaît et WTF signifie “Mais c’est du grand n’importe quoi !” WTF est tantôt un signe d’exaspération, tantôt un signe d’émotion face à ce qu’on vient de découvrir en ligne (…) La personne est déconcertée et tient à signaler qu’elle l’est.” Voilà qui est clair.

    http://www.lemonde.fr/m-actu/article/2014/04/25/juste-un-mot-wtf_4406440_4497186.html

    Reply
  11. Karen Harrison

    When we lived in The Netherlands, an American friend brought her Dutch boyfriend to a dinner party. At the dinner party were people from the US, Brazil, and Italy. The boyfriend cursed several times throughout the evening during normal conversation. It was shocking to everyone at the table who wasn’t Dutch. However much a person may curse at home or amongst friends, to do so in a group of people you don’t know is very impolite.

    Our Dutch neighbor visited the US, and heard someone say “Eat my shorts”. He came back home and began saying “Eat my pants.” We didn’t correct him because it was so hilarious. This same man, when explaining “klootzak” to us said “It is the sack whic hangs from a man and contains the balls.”

    Reply
  12. Jen R

    Yes, they’re just for enhancement. My Opa, at age 80 or so, didn’t speak English very well but always wanted to communicate with me in English. One summer he came to visit us in the U.S., along with his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s granddaughter. She and I were playing a game similar to Go at a table out in the garden one day when Opa came upon us and attempted to engage me in English:”What do you…”, he began. Then, “What you are…?” Then, “God dammit,” which I assumed was an expression of his frustration at not being able to express himself clearly in English. My cousin said to him in Dutch, “Oh, just say it in Dutch,” and his response (in Dutch) was,”What are you doing, goddammit?” Proof that the swearing was just to enhance the sentence and not really swearing at all.

    Reply
    • Stella

      At home cursing was forbidden. At school I learned that a godverdomme was a kernachtige uitdrukking. Today with the many fuckings and what the fucks and FTWs it is just a saying, maybe a bit swearingly, But in my opinion it is coarse language and should be avoided.

      Reply
  13. Lúthien

    I find using the word ‘fuck(-ing)’ by people who want to show off how hip / daring / bold they are astonishingly obtuse: “Hey! HEY!!! Did you all hear that? I just said ‘fuck’! Now you can all praise me for my audacity!”
    And it’s indeed not just the Dutch. Spend a few minutes on Medium.com – search for posts categorised as “life hacking”. There the latest achievements in writing meaningless drivel showcase the elaborate and utterly moronic use of the F-word 😉
    It’s just depressingly stupid.

    Reply
  14. Spender

    My Oma would swear in Dutch quite a bit. She said it was okay as long as she didn’t do it on Sundays. W would get in trouble if we said “shit” on Unday so we changed it to “Stear cacuka” and then it was acceptable.
    On the other hand I wonder how many people would use the word F.U.C.K. if they know what it stood for in the southern states during the time of Martin Luther King. It was short for “Free Us Colored Kids” once I learned this in school many moons ago I stopped using this expression it just had a totally different meaning and didn’t feel right.

    Reply
  15. Mary Thompson

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard Dutch people swear in whatever language is convenient as I’ve heard my parents, siblings and other relatives use swears in English, Dutch, French or whatever. As English speakers we are just sensitive to the English words.

    Reply
  16. PapaVanTwee

    I am the “American” in this relationship. My wife is Dutch and we live in the US. When a song like Bruno Mars, “24K Magic” comes out, and I like it, I’ll buy it, download it, load it into some editing software and get rid of the curse words. I went to college for this, I just never got a job in broadcasting to use my editing skills, in case you are wondering. I do this so I can play the song in front of the kids (4 and 7 now) with no worries. If they go out in the world repeating words like these, we would be seen as bad parents (well, in my eyes, at least).

    Well, we listen to a lot of NPO Radio 2 here, and when that song comes on, there are the words, loud and clear. For fuck’s sake! 😛

    Reply
  17. Yvette Kon-Nijsen

    It’s unfortunately true that swearing has become an integral part of the language nowadays. I, personally, am greatly offended by it and teach my children and the children under my care (I’m an overblijfmoeder) to think before they speak and if they can’t say it without swearwords than say nothing at all. And I ask them if they know what the meaning of the words they use is, because a lot of kids have no idea. They just think it’s cool, heard it at home, on Youtube or on TV…and that’s how a language deteriorates…

    Reply
  18. Barbara

    I lived in the Netherlands for ten years and didn’t hear any worse cuss words (in English) than anywhere else. I have heard MANY Dutch cuss words. My Dutch man swears all the time in Dutch, living in California, when the need arises for him. NEVER the word FUXX. I haven’t heard that word from any of my family nor friends, Dutch or English..

    Reply
  19. Sinnocent Bystander

    I regularly travel to the US for work. Being in a white collar environment I hear as much -and more- use of the same words. I go crazy on all the beeps on tv and radio or edited content of the movies on the plane or the silenced words in music.

    It’s just hypocritical to do that while everyone is using it themselves. Why not just use it then?! It’s life and current status of society!

    Even here people use WTF while everyone reads in their mind What The Fuck!! What’s the freakin’ 😉 difference?

    Everyone in the US boasts about the first amendment (freedom of speech and such, right?). Then explain to me why the hell -pun intended- y’all are sensoring those words, expressions, and such. To protect the children? Really? It’s a violation of that same amendment. And don’t get me started on ‘nudity’ in movies and magazines…

    I would say: Shit, grow the fuck up and get a life.” But that would be cynical, wouldn’t it? But then I’m Dutch ;).

    Reply
  20. Bram

    By far the most used swear words in the Netherlands are diseases:
    kanker (cancer),
    tering (tuberculosis),
    tifus (typhus),
    pleures (pleurisy),
    pest (plague),
    pokken (smallpox),
    etc.

    If a Dutch person starts to swear using the above mentioned words, he/she is realy pissed off.

    Reply
    • marieke elzer

      Those are NOT the most used swear words, some of these (like pest) are not used by anyone, those are just the ones together with ‘homo’ (gay) that everyone makes a fuss about because it is not acceptable, and offending.

      This article is about the ‘harmless swear words’ like fuck and shit.
      So I think you are missing the point of this article

      Reply
  21. Nick

    To be honest, the fact that they’re foreign swear words is exactly the reason that people use them so liberally – not just because they’re “cool” (I think it’s been a long time since anyone who said “fuck!” instead of a Dutch equivalent was perceived as cool), but also because it means the effect is softened. The “f-word” is just a slightly strong enhancer. It’s not like we’re completely desensitised to all swearing! Using the k-word (AKA the Dutch word for cancer) as a swear word is a big thing as seen by most as very irresponsible.

    That said, there is certainly less of an aversion overall. There’s no watershed and no censorship on TV or radio. I think most perceive the custom of bleeping as quite childish, especially when it’s on late night TV and when everyone knows exactly what is being said.

    Reply
  22. Mayya

    Swearwords generally sound less offensive if they are in a foreign language, English is not an exception. The problem is, if it’s someone’s mother tongue it may seem much more offensive to them.

    Some swearwords seem to have different “weight” in different cultures. My Dutch friends swear a lot in Dutch, and to them “kut” is much less offensive than “godverdomme”. In my language it’s the opposite, so they just say “vervelend” about everything if they’re talking to me.

    Reply
  23. Tanya

    If you feel offended by people using the word ‘fuck’, maybe it’s an idea to either learn how to deal with it or go back to where you came from. We are not easy to offend, we don’t care about the word ‘fuck’, it’s just a synonym for ‘make love’ or ‘have sex’. The way we use it, it’s not even being used to express these meanings, it’s just an easy word to curse with without swearing with anything really severe and offending. Like ‘shit’, ‘crap’ (we do it every day) I don’t understand the commotion and shocking issue. The word ‘cancer’ or in Dutch ‘kanker’ is being used more often than ‘fuck’ and that’s something I understand people have difficulties with, because you’re actually swearing with a disease and something terrible everybody can relate to. We all know somebody who had cancer… But ‘fuck’ is not a terrible word, it’s something we all do to reproduce and it’s probably typical American or English to be easily offended, we Dutch just don’t understand why. Especially not because we hear it in every American movie, series and tv show. How do you think we got familiar with the English cursing vocabulary?

    We are not screaming and yelling like idiots all the time when something good happens, we will not freak out when we see a celebrity, we will certainly not call the word ‘fuck’ the ‘f-bomb’. We are not hypocritical, we love to be straight to the point. We are very straight forward, we confront people with our issues and we don’t understand how a person can be offended by the words ‘fuck’, ‘shitty’, ‘bloody’ etc. Get over it, understand our culture and our free way of expressing ourselves or just move…

    Personally, my opinion would be to consult a therapist to talk about this issue. How the hell (sorry, offending as well right?) can one be offended by the word ‘fuck’??? ‘Nigger’, ‘Mongol’, etc, yes, I totally get it. These words can offend you because they are racist or making fun of Down Syndrome. That’s not done, I agree. But the word ‘fuck’…. I don’t get it…

    Funny that this is the issue you want to write an article about. In The Netherlands it’s okay to be LGBT, we respect all religions and everybody is free to practice any religion, we have freedom of speech and we love to curse with the ‘F-bomb’ so now and then…

    Using the word ‘fuck’ is not offending any religion, not making fun of one’s background, sexual preference or any nasty disease. It’s just four letters being used like ‘darn’, ‘dang’, etc.

    What’s the fucking problem…

    Reply
  24. will

    There is a filtering effect, but the filter doesn’t work to native English speakers. Swearing in Dutch is a lot worse as you know, so swearing in English isn’t that bad (to a native Dutch speakers). And really, how bad is saying “fuck”? It’s just a different, albeit more rude, word for the act of making love.

    Reply
  25. Kim

    Lived in Australia. I that f-en place they use the word ‘fuck’ five fucking times in one fucking sentence, fucking oath.

    Reply
  26. Uien Cornflakes

    John F. Kennedy: What hobby do you have, mr Luns?
    Joseph Luns (Dutch minister): I fuck horses
    Kennedy: I beg your pardon!?
    Luns: Yes, paarden !

    Reply
  27. koos

    When I was a kid, growing up near Seattle, our Dutch family friends came to visit with one of their daughters, who was probably five at the time. When the five year old dropped something in a parking lot and said, “fuck!” clear as day. I stared in bewilderment at my mom (also Dutch), who simply explained that it is different there, it doesn’t mean as much.

    Now all grown up, when I’ve worked with Dutch folks, it seems it depends on where you’re from that determines the degree to which you curse. English cursing seems usually much more acceptable, but if you hurt yourself apparently using the “k” word is okay?

    Meanwhile, in the Seattle tech industry, cursing is usually acceptable so long as it is not directed directly at a person who is present.

    Reply
  28. marieke elzer

    And yet, we learn most of our swear words from Netflix, American series yo be exact

    Reply
  29. Lilith

    The words shit and fuck have just lost their power in our language.
    It’s more of a common swear, not actual cursing.
    In Harry Potter, Hermione organised the S.H.I.T. instead of the S.P.E.W. Nobody felt that was too inapropriate for a childrensbook, it was slightly ‘naughty/bad’, on the same level as saying; ‘you’re stupid’ to someone.
    Ron even jokes about it, saying he’s tired of her shit and asks when she’s going to stop with all of that shit.
    And ofcourse, nothing is censored, it’s a plain word.

    Reply

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