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Word of the Day: pesten (bullying)

Offensive and intimidating behaviour is of all times and of all places, but the verb PESTEN seems to pop up more and more frequently in the Dutch media over the last couple of months. Very often as CYBERPESTEN, cyberbullying (on the internet). All this PESTEN is a worrisome development and it seems to be making many casualties. Allegedly one in every five Dutch children and one in every three students indicated that they at one time or another were pestered by way of emails or text messages.


Why, you may ask, this nasty word on this gloomy cold Sunday? It’s because Annette mailed us the following question a couple of days ago: ‘My colleague at work uses the word ‘pestpokkenkinderen’ to describe the offensive sort of child running out of control around our shop, throwing things around and making a lot of noise. Is this a real term of offense?’

Dear Annette, as I wrote to you earlier, unfortunately this abusive word PESTPOKKENKINDEREN for unruly children is quite common. However, I would strongly recommend not to use it. Leave these words to the Dutch. Apparently they like to employ a lot of terrible diseases in their abusive exclamations: PEST, bubonic plague, POKKEN, pox. KLERE, cholera, TYFUS, typhoid fever, KANKER, etcetera. And they have been doing this from the early Middle Ages on.

The expression KRIJG DE XXXX, ‘get the XXXX’ [almost any disease can be entered] is often cried by aggressive motorists during rush hours. What does this propensity for wishing another person an infectious disease tell us about Dutch culture? What do you think?

So, PESTEN comes from the dreaded medieval epidemic PEST, plague, originally a latin word: ‘pestilentia’. But did you know that the typically English verb ‘to bully’ has its origins in Middle Dutch ‘boel’, a pet name for ‘brother’? This word developed into ‘friend’ and ‘lover’. And then it made a negative turn when BOEL was used to refer to illicit sexual relations and adulterers. What the verb BOELEN must have meant, I leave to your imagination…

The Dutch lost the word BOELEN and came up with PESTEN, PLAGEN, TREITEREN, SARREN and many other nasty words whereas the British stuck to BULLYING. Could it be that a PESTKOP, a bully, is a fellow human being, brother or sister who feels frustrated when it comes to friendship or love?