There are no swear words in Danish,” says my mate Irina as we sit together on the number 15 bus. She says it with absolute contempt, rolling her Rs and spitting out the words. “Now in Portugal, we know how to swear, there are thousands of swear words. What do they have here?” she asks with a rhetorical Mediterranean sneer. “All they have is stuff about the devil …”
I find myself imagining a kind of ‘Swearovision’ contest in which poor, plucky little Denmark is desperately trying to defend itself against the Portuguese champions as they insult every family member individually. The Danes of course would be powerless without the F-word, which is an English word and would therefore not be allowed (this is my scenario and I make the rules) and so they would crumple in the face of Irina yelling: “Your great aunt Jetta has size 45 feet!”
‘Swearovisions’ aside, I personally have a problem with the theft of the F-word. I’m sorry but it’s a bad word to me. If I say it, it means I’m really upset and never in a million years would I write it. In Denmark it’s everywhere: sweet little old ladies use it and it’s in newspaper headlines and adverts. When my Mum visits I have to throw myself in front of billboards to block it out.
Am I a prude? Will my avoidance of saying ‘F this’ and ‘F that’ affect my prospects of integration in Daneland? I turned to Dr Marianne Rathje, a post-doctoral researcher at the Danish Language Council for advice.
Marianne is an expert on swearing in Danish, from a linguistic point of view that is. She assures me that my clean speech probably won’t be a problem since I’m not a teenager. She also tells me that the F-word has been around in spoken Danish since the 1960s, in writing since the 1990s, and its use has doubled in the last 15 years.
“There was no equivalent word, so we just took the English word,” she explained. I protest that there must be a word for that … the F-thing.
“Oh yes, there’s the word kneppe,” she said. “But we couldn’t use that in Danish, it’s too shocking.”
“So let me get this right,” I said. “You took a shocking word from my language and then made it so commonplace that it’s not shocking anymore, because your own language was too rude? Whose bright idea was that? Could I not just take revenge by taking the word kneppe and doing the same thing?”
We agreed this would be justifiable, but probably not achievable. And Rathje also admitted that the fact that the F-word is in another language probably makes it easier for Danes to say.
According to Rathje, Danish swear words fall into three categories: words of religious origin, words describing sickness, and words that refer to lower bodily functions.
Rathje has even conducted experiments that revealed that the old and young are just as foul-mouthed as one another but swear differently. Younger people used about half religious, half lower bodily function swear words and shunned the disease words. Older people used more than 90 percent religious swear words with a pinch of disease and lower bodily stuff for good measure.
So here’s the Danish profanity top five. At number five is the rather bizarre kraftedeme which apparently means ‘may cancer eat me’. Also bringing up the rear at number four we have the classic fecal interjection skid. Third place is occupied by words that make some reference to the devil either as the standard fandeme-type thing or in his incarnation as Søren. The second most used swear words are to do with god (e.g gud or gudselov), who finds himself beaten to first place by the humble sgu, which translates roughly as damn.
As for our poor little English F-word, there are two possibilities for its fate, according to Rathje. Either it will get so overused it loses all impact (we are close to that in my opinion) or it will become something that only the young say, with one generation stopping saying it when they reach a certain age and passing it like an Olympic torch to the next. Either way Denmark is knepped at the ‘Swearovision’ …