The forbidden vocabulary

Last Friday I visited TEDx Dordrecht. An independently organized TED event in my home town listing 12 speakers on topics related to Sustainability and Food. It was a good event. There were some excellent speakers, good food, a nice venue and enough breaks to socialize with some of the other visitors.

The last speaker of the night was a 19 year old student and member of the Dutch national youth council for sustainability. Excited and in the heat of her youthful exuberance she used some words during her speech that where, well… how do I put it….

Ok she used the word ‘F*ck’ more then a couple of times. Now to be fair, using that word in Dutch is, although still seen as a swear word better to be avoided, really not to big a deal. Especially as it is an incorporated English word and therefore doesn’t really have the same weight to it as it would have in English. It is often used to stress a point or an exclamation of annoyance among younger generations. So using it in a Dutch context, although frowned upon, wouldn’t normally cause much of a reaction. Probably also because we aren’t that easily shocked. The session however was in English and was being broadcasted to 35 countries world wide.

Right…. now that mischievous word suddenly became a full blown profanity and probably caused some stirs around the world as was hinted on afterwards by the host.

It is funny as it emphasized to me the subtle differences in language. To my shame I have to admit I too use that word on occasion. Most times though, not in an English or public context as I know the word really does have a bigger weight to it in English then it does in Dutch.

In fact, it seems more and more people prefer using foreign swear words. As if swearing in a different language has less impact then saying a similar swear word in Dutch. And it probably does, as to a lot of people, the word becomes just that: ‘a word’. It’s original context and meaning fade a bit and it becomes a word on its own. Yes, everybody still knows it is a profanity but it is seen less connected to what it actually describes. Especially as the Dutch translation of the word (verb) ‘F*ck’ isn’t officially classified as a swear word at all. It is somewhat of a taboo word, not to be used often or in a formal or public conversation but it isn’t considered a real profanity either.

Somehow, not having the same context, makes swearing in another language less harsh then using a similar swear word in your own language. And it’s not just the Dutch that do that or have a fascination for foreign swear words. I’ve had numerous situations where foreigners of all nationalities proud to show off their skills, start reciting all the Dutch words and sentences they know. Stumbling their way through the obligatory ‘Hallo’, ‘welkom’, ‘goedemiddag’, ‘mijn naam is…’ unto some pretty harsh Dutch swear words… often with a big grin to their face.
In that regard, using foreign swear words seems to allow us to be that little kid again trying out the new forbidden vocabulary we picked up in the school yard…. It reminds us of the good old times when innocent as we were we really didn’t know yet what all those words meant, the actions it described and the cultural load it had.

No wonder there are so many sites around that will teach you the most gruesome swear words in almost any language around. I guess some fascinations just never die, do they…. 🙂

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