Saturday, December 4, 2021

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Curse words, cancer and the Pilgrims


“Bless me father, for I have sinned, it has been several decades since my last confession.”

Primarily out of laziness, and perhaps a lack of creativity, I had a fairly reliable list of sins I would confess to the priest at St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City. I usually warmed the priest up with confessing to “talking back” to my mom and dad. That was easy and would only require a minor punishment, a “Hail Mary” or two. And then I would give a nod to lying as my second sin, which, of course, should have tipped the priest off as to my overall credibility. Finally, I’d pull out my big gun-of-a-sin — cursing. I would even give a specific number. Seven. Yup, I’m not lying. Seven times I cursed. I felt that was a good, round, biblical number.

As I grew older, got married and had children, cursing was nonexistent in my life. It took becoming a teacher of law students and police officers before I discovered something wonderful — a well-placed curse could bring a class to full attention. One simple profanity had the magical ability to focus the students’ minds into the present moment out of sheer shock.

Sure, it was a cheap trick. Instead of honestly earning the students’ attention, I was willing to resort to gimmicks. But who ever said teaching was honorable? If I could have gotten away with turning one student into a pillar of salt during the first 15 minutes, just as a gentle reminder for the others to listen up, there would have been a salt lick in each of my classes. Duh.

What a surprise, then, to discover the truth about cursing.

joes1It happened because I met Harriet Priester. Harriet Priester is first and foremost a mother. To be sure, she is also a business woman who works nearly every day at her family-owned gym in Holland. Greeting folks at the front desk, providing towels, answering questions, she takes care of everything. But what she really does is mother all of us who visit the gym — young, old, female, male, Dutch, or foreigners. We are all her children.

Unfortunately for mothers everywhere, there is always a bad child in the bunch.

Harriet made the simple mistake of introducing me to two of her adult sons. Since I am really a 12-year-old who needs to be in permanent time-out, I asked her sons about Dutch swear words — specifically, what is the very worst word to say in Dutch?

Luc, the oldest son, looked around, leaned in, and softly whispered — “kanker.” Harriet immediately turned a deep red and covered her mouth. Rik, the youngest, looked away with a nervous snicker. The room turned dead quiet.

Wow. “Kanker.” This is a great word. It made a young man turn away, a mother blush, and it silenced a room. Awesome. What’s it mean?

Luc looked at me. “Kanker. You know.”

No, I didn’t.

“Kanker, kanker.”

Nope, I still didn’t know.

“Cancer,” Luc said.

Of course.

joes2Luc explained that the worst swear words in Dutch (and The Hague, according to him, is known as the cursing capitol of Holland) are diseases, with kanker being the very worse. It is so bad that a child will be grounded if he or she even says the word out loud. Tied for second place is “tyfus” and “colera.” No kidding.

I was stunned! So, the slang word for having sex is not a bad word in Holland, but to call someone a disease is a bad word. Go figure. This sounded like a topic that needed some type of doctoral thesis. So, off I went up the road to the renowned university town of Leiden — a town not only full of smart people but of beautiful canals and twirling windmills.

My plan was to talk to the foremost expert on the Pilgrims. Yup, those same Pilgrims who left Leiden on a boat called the Mayflower and may have influenced our “puritanical” American swear words. Listen, it seemed reasonable to me at the time.

Dr. Jeremy Bangs, author of several seminal books on the Pilgrims and Director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, is a professorial man of a certain age. Learned, proper, somberly dressed, he stood in a home built in 1365 to talk to us about the Pilgrims who stood where we were now standing, but in the 1600s. With slow, measured speech, and a hint in his tone that he may know more than you do on any subject, he is a transfixing speaker.

joes3Unfortunately, he was so erudite as he spoke about the Pilgrims’ commitment to the concept of separation of church and state, their influence on our notion of free will, and their tolerance of different religions, it didn’t seem the opportune time to raise my hand and ask what curse words the Pilgrims might have used while eating cranberry salad that first Thanksgiving.

So, I took the weak-man’s way out, and I wrote him last night. Within moments he wrote back. He thought there was one reference to cursing in the Pilgrims literature and would gladly check into it. He then added:

“Other than your experience with the disease-related words, one of the more emphatic denunciations is to call someone a ‘klootzak.’ My children were born here and grew up bi-lingual. When we moved to Massachusetts in 1986, they had to get along with non-Dutch speaking friends. One day my son, 12 years old, came running into the house, breathlessly asking, ‘Papa, what’s “klootzak” in English?’ Looking up from whatever I was reading, I said, ‘scrotum.’ He rushed out the door, furiously yelling his loudest at some American kid, ‘Scrotum! Scrotum! You Scrotum!’ ”

Why, that darn Dr. Bangs is a jokester. And if he’s a jokester, then those Pilgrims must have also been jokesters, and maybe even enjoyed a good curse word. And if the Pilgrims enjoyed a good curse word, and every culture’s curse words are different, where’s the sin? My research is done.

Father Benda, I take back item three on my checklist. Forget the seven times of cursing. Thank goodness. Surely that gets my heretical little toe out of purgatory. Or not. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at

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