Opposite Ocean: When the swear word loses its strength

Opposite Ocean: When the swear word loses its strength

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Leah thinks over some implications of the way Belgians use English.

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. 

with the permission of Opposite Ocean.

Opposite OceanOpposite Ocean: Leah Budke is a web blog created and maintained by Leah Budke. Leah is a twenty-something American living abroad in Europe with a passion for languages, art, literature, and one special Belgian. She is a university graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish but finds that the drive to learn endures. Follow her as she cycles awkwardly through the streets of Ghent, Belgium, attempts to learn Dutch, and reveals all the quirks that make up the curious yet charming country of Belgium. 

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Vivienne posted:

    on 28th January 2013, 23:19:05 - Reply

    When I taught English as a foreign language in France over 30 years ago, students would ask me to teach them English swear words. I was sure they knew more than I did and told them that the important thing was know when to use them, which was a question of manners rather than language. I'm not often shocked by other people's language, but am not impressed by those who cannot say anything without an accompanying string of four-letter expletives. I agree that it's difficult to appreciate the full impact of swear word in a foreign language, it's just more worrying when they are used indiscriminately by native speakers.
  • Sylvia J. posted:

    on 23rd January 2013, 16:33:06 - Reply

    My sympathy with Leah - I hate swearing too, and I've told many a Flemish person what the 'F' word really means. They were shocked, because they had no idea! I get really angry when swearwords are used for no particular reason - just as fillers, with no consideration at all that this might offend someone. My mother-in-lawed used to threaten the kids that she would wash their mouth out with soap, but I don't think the younger generation ever heard such a threat!
  • Bill posted:

    on 23rd January 2013, 13:14:29 - Reply

    I have never understood why Americans are so squeamish about curse-words. In fact it's good for your health to swear regularly..in public if the mood takes you! ;-) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-do-we-swear

    Besides, English swearing is a bit hum-drum. Greeks and Italians, on the other hand, have a great repertoire of swear words/phrases, and Arabic speakers are probably the best in the world!