The Different Perceptions of Swearing between Dutch and British Christian Students

I came across this in my reading last night, and couldn’t resist sharing it – mostly for the benefit of my friend Mieke. However, it does have a serious point… makes us think twice about what words offend us, especially if judging that offence to be justified by the Bible.

‘Swearing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an area in which CSL [Leiden University Christian Union] members tended to be slightly differentiated though not to the same extent as OICCU and AUCU [Oxford and Aberdeen University Christian Unions] members. Differentiation was clear but it was complicated by the fact that the orientation of Dutch swearing is very different from that of English. Male members did not have any difficulty using swearwords that they knew to be sexual and even the female members had no problem using English swearwords (which was common [116] in Holland) which they knew to be sexual. One female member was amazed when I informed her of just how rude some English people thought that the word ‘fuck’ was. Members commented that they would use these various sexual and bodily Dutch swearwords if they were angry but tried not to. This included terms such as ‘shit’ and ‘klootzak’ (scrotum) and I would suggest that OICCU members in particular tended to reject equivalent English swearwords which were middle-ranking in terms of their perceived offensiveness such as ‘shit’. However, all CSL members did reject the strongest Dutch swearword – Godverdomme (Old Dutch for ‘God damn it’). They argued that this word was ‘insulting’, ‘disrespectful’ and even ‘forbidden by the Bible’. All but two were not even prepared to use its disguised version ‘Godverdikemme’. A non-religious Dutch student – who tried to explain Dutch swearing to me in a bar – found Godverdomme so offensive that he was not prepared to say it and, to the mirth of his friends, insisted on writing it down on a beer mat for me. However, in a sense it is difficult to compare the issue of swearing. As discussed, both OICCU and AUCU members mainly rejected profanity which is generally perceived as mild swearing in England and Scotland. However CSL members were rejecting only the strongest forms of swearing. This could reflect a low level of differentiation but it is made more complex because the reasons for the rejection may be different. On the surface, at least, the level of differentiation with regard to swearing appears to be low. Certainly religious Netherlanders found ‘God damn it’ very offensive. On one occasion I recall saying ‘damn’ in front of two Dutch evangelical Christians because they had neglected to buy any milk to go with the tea for the British evening, not knowing that the British had milk in tea. For comic effect I said, ‘damn’ – the mildest swear-word I could think of in the context of an English-language conversation, in British English at least. They evidently could not believe what they were hearing and one of them just gasped, ‘Excuse me? Can you not say that?!”

From Edward Dutton, 2008. Meeting Jesus at University: Rites of Passage and Student Evangelicals. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 115-116.

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

One response to “The Different Perceptions of Swearing between Dutch and British Christian Students”

  1. Michael Hampson says :

    Absolutely fascinating…

    Of course the power of a swear-word varies over time – I’m old enough to have seen fashions come and go – and also by region and various other cultural conventions; recall David Cameron and the ‘twat’ comment, and I find it bewildering that Channel 4 will happy broadcast the F-word but bleep out the C-word … why that way round? We all know the politics of the N-word, but it’s interesting to see that all swear words have their own politics, albeit less important, and that it varies by region (as well as over time).

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