Dutch Quirk #1: Swear with diseases (even cancer)

HomeUltimate List of Dutch QuirksDutch Quirk #1: Swear with diseases (even cancer)

So, you’re sitting there on the train or walking on the street when you see some tall Dutch teenagers in their Adidas shoes and black Nike puffer jackets. They’re getting closer now, and suddenly you see one of them open their mouth to utter the words, “Ja, het is kankerweer, man! (The weather is cancer, man.)

You shudder out of fear and/or disgust, and you return to your Instagram feed, hoping that the jongens have moved on. You ask yourself, “What the heck was that?” and try to get on with your day. 😩

We know that the Dutch are normally direct, straightforward, and not trying to stand out. However, their swear words don’t really correspond with their doe normaal attitude. 

So, why do the Dutch use diseases as swear words? Let’s get into it. 🤓

What is it?

In many languages, swear words tend to revolve around sex, parents, and/or even animals.

However, the Dutch, not wanting to be like everybody else, have their own unique way of swearing: they use diseases to insult people. 

READ MORE | 17 facts about the Dutch language that will make you go ‘echt’?!

In Dutch, the most common swear is kanker (cancer), and it is used not as a noun but as an adjective.

You can literally throw it in front of anything, and it kind of translates as “shitty, bad, uncomfortable, etc.” 

Some common (awful) disease insults include:

  • Kanker (Cancerous)
  • Krijg de tyfus/klere/pest! (Get tuberculosis/cholera/plague)
  • Optyfussen (Typhus off)
  • Klerelijer (Cholera-sufferer)

You can even use a nonsensical combination of diseases together, like, “Krijg de kankertyfus (Get cancer-typhus).” No, it doesn’t make sense, but it sure is creative.

Why do they do it?

According to an article in Atlas Obscura, Dutch swear words revolve around illness because it’s one of the Dutch’s biggest fears.

We know that the Dutch are pretty known for their cleanliness and hygiene (except when it comes to their hands, apparently 👀).

So it makes sense that they would be scared of illnesses and germs.

However, this pandemic has been showing that Dutch people aren’t ALL that afraid of deadly viruses, so it’s quite hard to definitively say that’s the reason why. 🤔

Why is it quirky? 

Still, it’s certainly a fascinating habit of swearing that few other languages share. It will definitely get someone’s attention if used. 👊

Should you join in? 

This one’s a toughie! Especially with the kanker swear, it may still be quite frowned upon in Dutch society.

Just to be safe, maybe try to avoid using them in general or opt for the tons of other swears which aren’t related to a serious illness.

Or ask your Dutch friends about how the swears are used. 🤷

What do you think of this Dutch quirk? Have you experienced it? Tell us in the comments below!

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October 2021, and was fully updated in November 2022 for your reading pleasure.

Feature Image:Depositphotos
Nicole Ogden 🇹🇭 🇺🇸
Nicole Ogden 🇹🇭 🇺🇸
Hailing from the bustling city of Bangkok, Nicole is a Thai/American international student who came to the Netherlands to study linguistics. When she's not reading books or listening to true crime podcasts, she's practising her singing and guitar skills! She is also attempting to pick up the Dutch language (moeilijk).


  1. It’s just swear words. Sure, in a argument they are serious and can quickly be followed by physical agression.

    But they can also be used as relief words after hurting yourself.

    Also in a normal conversation they can be used as expressions of surprise or to highlight whatever.
    “Kolere, lekker weer vandaag he?”/”Cholera, nice weather today, innit?”.

    Still sounds better than:
    “Have your mum taken up the a*rse by a dog, but it’s nice weather, innit?”

    Swear words are cultural phenomena. Used in a native language it does make sense.
    Being Dutch living for ages in the UK now, I still can’t get used to the pet names: “flower” en “pet” or “son”. Since, like all expats, I translate every word before I express myself, it just sound ridiculous.

    Zo, kolere he, dat was een lang verhaal 😉
    (So, Cholera eh, that was a lengthy response😉)


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