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Word of the day: kont (ass)

With trepidation and a lot of AARZELINGEN (hesitations), I chose KONT (ass) as my word of the day. This word was inspired by Tommy Wieringa’s short novel ‘Een mooie jonge vrouw’ (a beautiful young woman). It is this year’s BOEKENWEEKGESCHENK (book week gift). The story is about the downfall of a man after he fell in love with a woman who is fourteen years younger. The first thing he notices is… right, you guessed right:


‘Ze zit op een mountainbike, een beetje voorovergebogen, met haar kont omhoog. Ik kan het niet vertellen zonder dat detail. De kont waarmee alles begint. Zo gleed ze me voorbij, in die straat vol mensen, met die blonde haren en die kont…’

(She is sitting on a mountainbike, slightly bent forward, with her ass up in the air. I cannot tell it without that detail. The ass with which it all began. That’s how she slid by, in that street full of people, with those blonde hairs and that ass…)

Three times the word KONT (ass) in four literary sentences. So what… I hear you say: ‘Every contemporary novel will have words like ‘ass’, ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’, etcetera.’ Of course you’re right. I know, I know. James Joyce’s monologue of Molly Bloom was already full of them and even Samuel Beckett’s ‘Rockaby’ culminated in a wonderful ‘fuck life’.

So what’s wrong with me? What have I got against these words in Dutch literature? Everybody uses them in everyday speech. So why does it bother me that some literary authors use them?

I guess it’s because I find that these ‘vulgar’ words very often sound so unnatural. The two Dutch authors who startled society when they started using them, were Jan Cremer (1940) and Jan Wolkers (1925-2007). ‘Ik, Jan Cremer’ is celebrating its fiftieth birthday this year and Jan Wolkers’ ‘Turks Fruit’ was published in 1969. The sixties were revolutionary years during which many people had to publicly show how open minded they were. Four letter words which had been taboo in literature up till them became quite normal.

‘Turks fruit’ was made into a very popular film by director Paul Verhoeven (of ‘Basic Instinct’, ‘Soldier of Orange’ and ‘Robocop’ fame) in 1973. When you see this short clip from the film, you can imagine how Verhoeven managed to shock the audience in the seventies when the elderly man is singing along with the Radetzky March. The lyrics he made up, reflect the basic instincts and vulgar drive of any man in heat. (Is it a coincidence that Wieringa mentions the Radetzky March later on in his shot novel?)

To deal with my aversion to KONT, I dived into the etymology of the word. I was surprised to find that the word KONT is next of kin to the English word ‘cunt’. Both KONT and ‘cunt’ have a history going back to the early Middle Ages. The first meaning of KONT in the Dictionary of the Dutch Language is the female genital organ and in certain dialects of the Netherlands it still has that meaning.

Somewhere in the eighteenth century its meaning shifted from the lower front of the woman to the rear end of any human.

The genital organ of a woman has been called KUT (cunt) since the sixteenth century in Dutch. In the Middle Ages the backside was named AARS which merely meant rear or behind. In the verb AARZELEN (hesitate) we can still trace the original meaning. AARZELEN used to mean to ‘scramble backwards’ back then. The French have the expression that you should draw back in order to make a better jump: ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’. An AARZELING (hesitation) is a kind of ‘achteruitwijken’ (drawing back).

Strange to see that the English equivalent of AARS viz. ‘arse’ or ‘ass’ seems to be shifting its meaning from the rear end to the front. Just think of phrases like ‘a piece of ass’ and ‘looking for ass’. Apparently ’arse’ and ‘cunt’ have the potentioal to make circular movements in time in both our languages. My colleague Pieter was telling me that something similar is going on with the American word ‘fanny’.

The Dutch have been calling the private parts ‘schaamdelen’: parts to be ashamed about. Nobody knows why we should be ashamed about these parts that can give us so much pleasure and relief.

O yes, there is this ancient weird fairy tale about a man and a woman in their ‘blote kont’ (birthday suit) in a blissful garden who meet a devious snake at the beginning of time. After having eaten from the fruit of a forbidden tree, they suddenly felt ashamed about their nakedness and especially their genital organs. And that must be why the Dutch still call their genitals ‘schaamdelen’.