When the swear word loses its strength.

Posted on Apr 13, 2012 | 4 comments

When the swear word loses its strength.

Belgians are superior language learners. A week or so ago I was amazed again by their vast language capabilities. I was waiting for the tram around 10 in the morning so that I could make my English literature class lecture when an elderly man and woman made their way to the stop. As the tram was arriving the man asked me something in Dutch that I didn’t understand. I replied to him in Dutch, “Sorry, maar ik spreek Engels en ik kan je niet goed begrijpen.” (Sorry, I speak English and I can’t understand you well). He immediately switched to English and asked me if I could help his lady friend off the tram in a few stops. I was amazed that this man, who reminded me of my own grandpa, could so easily put an English sentence together. I said of course that I could help her. I sat next to her on the tram and after a few stops I asked her in Dutch, “Moet je hier afstappen?” To which she replied with a smile, “No, the next one.” She made a little joke about buying too many groceries at the grocery store and I commented back that I usually do that, too. It was the same sort of friendly conversation that I would have with the American equivalent of this sweet older lady. When occurrences like this happen it is apparent to me just how much English pervades life here. This was a pleasant experience but sometimes there are also experiences that give me more of a negative feeling.

It’s common to be walking down the street or sitting on the tram and hear an English swear word thrown in among a string of Dutch words. The preferred expression of girls between the ages of 12 and 25 is, “oh my god.” Because I had a relatively conservative upbringing, these words still don’t often cross my lips. I was made aware at a young age that people can be easily offended by this expression. The choice not to say this expression, in my eyes, has nothing to do with religious preference, but rather a common courtesy that I take in order not to offend someone. The strongest of English swear words, for which we Americans have many silly substitutions (such as ‘freaking’, ‘flipping’, ‘fudge’), is very commonly heard. When I first moved here, I always felt taken aback when I would hear young people saying this so freely in public. Likewise, sometimes from the mouth of my boyfriend comes the swear word ‘shit’. Although, seemingly less strong of a cuss word to me than the ‘f’ word, it still always makes me look around quickly to see what catastrophe has occurred. I hate it when he says this while we’re in the car because my automatic reaction is to think that something is going terribly wrong. This brings me to my point that as these English swear words cross the barrier of language they seem to lose some of their strength. Belgians, specifically Belgian youth, throw them around with reckless abandon while I still choose to use them more sparingly. Although I hope to someday be able to switch languages as easily as these amazing Belgians do, I don’t want these ugly words to become part of my daily vocabulary. Afterall, damnit, when I say ‘shit’ I want to mean it.    

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  • http://myownhorizons.com Miranda

    Hmmm it’s interesting. To me, I think I’m much more sensitive to how a word’s being used than how strong it is. I don’t mind a little bit of cursing for humour… but I hate cursing as ordinary vocabulary, for example “I don’t want to have to f**k around with an extra suitcase.” ??? I have noticed a general tendency for Brits to do this more often.

    But in Norway, for example, ‘skit’ pronounced ‘shit’ is the mildest of curse words. It’s actually Norwegian for dirt and is similar to saying “Darn it” or “Oh Rubbish”. So when people say it in a quiet voice or whatever, it doesn’t really draw my attention. On the other hand, coming back home, when my dad yells, “SHIT!” I know something is really wrong!

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah

      I agree. If it’s appropriate for the situation, I’m not offended by a curse word. I just don’t like feeling panicked and thinking something has gone wrong for no reason. :) I suppose it’s always a cultural thing when it comes to curse words and how they are used. What a funny coincidence about the Norwegian word for dirt!

  • http://imaginationisspicy.wordpress.com Caro

    Hello! I’m a new visitor today, thank you for visiting my WP blog too, and I’m really enjoying reading your posts.

    This happened to catch my eye as I wonder if the more casual use of swear words is partly due to a cultural difference that a friend pointed out to me about Dutch? I didn’t know that some of the harshest swearing is based on physical disease, rather than religious meanings or bodily functions as you get in English. It definitely takes longer to curse fluently in Dutch than it does in English when you drop a hammer on your foot, for example.

    • http://www.oppositeocean.com/ Leah

      Hi Caro, I’m so glad you stopped by my blog. :) I always love getting comments and it’s even better if they come from a new visitor! I think you are right about the use of swear words being cultural. Dutch-speaking people from the Netherlands do use curse words associated with bodily functions and diseases as you mentioned, however, Belgian Dutch-speaking people don’t. I suppose we all have certain curse words in our native languages that have sort of lost their strength for us native speakers and are really quite shocking to those experiencing them for the first time. It’s all about perception and exposure I think, but I do find it very interesting to recognize all of these differences. Certainly, dropping a hammer on one’s foot is an acceptable situation in which to use a curse word, in my opinion; no matter the language. :) I hope you’ve had a nice weekend and thanks for your thoughtful comment!