Language and Culture

Dutch Curse Words: Less %@!$, More Smallpox

Dutch curse words might be the strangest swears you’ve never heard of.

I learned something new today, and that is that many Dutch swears involve diseases. How did I not know this before?

As the owner of a translation agency, I work with Dutch natives fairly regularly. (But they’ve never needed to swear at me, which is a good thing, I think.)

“Cholera!” yelled the little Dutch girl, as she realized her arm was cramping.

Dutch Curse Words in a Nutshell: “You Smallpox Sufferer!”

In a TV interview in early September, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte used a profanity while discussing a group of Turkish protesters. Specifically, he said that they should pleur op. He was criticized for using such strong language. (It’s the equivalent of “fuck off” in English.)

What’s interesting to me is not that politicians swear or that they do it in inappropriate contexts. No, what I think is fascinating is that this strongly worded imperative literally means “tuberculosis off.”

Yes, the pleur in pleur op has the same root as English words such as pleura, pleural, and pleurisy. Do you know what they mean? Me neither! But I know they all have something to do with lungs. (That’s not very technical, I know, which is why you don’t want me operating on you.)

As interesting linguistic phenomena go, swear words in Dutch might take the cake.

So I did a quick Google search, and to my endless amusement I learned that Dutch swear words often have to do with diseases.

For example, you can use the Dutch word klere (cholera) as an expletive. (“Klere!” said the man as he dropped an anvil on his foot.)

You can use kanker (cancer) as an adjective, adverb, or phrasal insult. (Krijg de kanker means “get the cancer,” but you might not want to say it to your boss…)

But my favorite is the use of lijer (sufferer) in combination with various diseases.

Mad at the guy who cut you off in traffic? Then call him a pokkelijer (smallpox sufferer), a tyfuslijer (a typhoid fever sufferer), or a klerelijer (cholera sufferer).

And if these terms sound tame, then consider that they’re all basically equivalent to “motherfucker.” Whoa!

Observe the Amsterdammer in his natural environment, spinning a veritable tapestry of Dutch curse words.

Elizabethan English: “A Pox Upon You!”

Ever since I learned that diseases, conditions, and afflictions form a large part of a Dutch native’s profanity arsenal, I’ve been trying to think of whether English uses diseases in its insults.

I can think only of A pox upon thee!, but there must be others. (Tell me in the comments if you’ve got a good one.)

As for Dutch swear words, I just wish I had known a few when I was in Utrecht and that bicyclist nearly ran over me…

Do you have a document that contains something other than Dutch curse words? Then let us can handle your Dutch translation.

But if swearing is your thing, then you’ll love our post on dirty French insults!

Dutch content represents only a little more than 1% of the pages on the Web. But what if a speaker’s language isn’t represented online at all?


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