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Olympic-level swearing: Why do Danes drop the F-bomb so often?

"Fuck, det er så fedt, meaning literally, "Fuck, it's so cool", was the first reaction of Danish sailor Anne-Marie Rindom when she took Denmark's first Olympic gold at Tokyo. We asked Rasmus Nielsen, a socio-linguist from the University of Southern Denmark, what's going on with Denmark and the F-bomb.

Olympic-level swearing: Why do Danes drop the F-bomb so often?

For newcomers to Denmark from the English-speaking world, it may have come as a shock that a country’s leading Olympic performer would use the word “fuck” so lightly in an interview with the country’s state broadcaster. 

It might be even more surprising that the state broadcaster would then use the quote in its headline for the biggest story of the day. 

But as anyone who has spent time in the country will know, the word “fuck” crops up in spoken and written Danish in contexts that seem wildly out of place for English speakers. 

“The way she used the word is as a marker of joy. It’s not even used as a swear word, she’s just expressing happiness,” Nielsen, an associate professor at the university, told The Local. “Clearly, it doesn’t have the same semantic content as it does in English.”

Whereas the word “fuck” is used in English only in informal settings, in Danish it can be used in almost any context, he explained. 

“There are no domains in Denmark where you can’t use it. If it can sneak into an article where an athlete celebrates her gold medal, you can use it everywhere. But in a native English-speaking context, there are certain definitely areas where it’s not appropriate.” 

Nielsen himself said that he often got into trouble when he studied at a high school in the US for using the word “very liberally, as we as we do in Denmark”. 

“In the US, so long as you’re backstage and not at a formal event, then the word pops out all the time. It’s used, especially by younger people in all sorts of informal contexts. But there’s definitely a certain domain of usage where you won’t find it at all.”

READ ALSO: The absolute worst words in the Danish language

Even the quality media, such as DR, Politiken or Berlingske, frequently use the word “fuck” in headlines, particularly the phrase få en fuckfinger, meaning “get the middle finger”, which is used frequently when a politician’s proposal or candidacy is rejected. See here, here, or here

According to Nielsen, the word “fuck” has gained a steadily greater role in written and spoken Danish since the end of the Second World War and particularly since about 1990, edging out other Danish swear words such as fanden (“the devil”), or for helvede (“for hell”).  

“It’s pushed out basically every single other old Danish swear word. It’s just ‘fuck’ before everything now,” he said. “Most of the old swear words are basically gone.” 

The word can be used extremely flexibly in Danish, as it can be in English, cropping up as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or in phrasal verbs, such as “fuckup”, which generally follow the same pattern as in English. 

Normally, when using the word, Danes give little thought to the fact that it might be offensive.

Rindom on Sunday was, however, a rare exception to this. 

“I’m sorry, I’m swearing,” she apologised. 

Member comments

  1. Without splitting hairs, but coming from a native English speaker, I would have thought that ´´fuckup´´ as one word is only a noun. As a verb, and a separable phrasal one at that, it would be two words. I wonder if Princess Mary uses it?

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Can ‘middle class’ Danish people afford to own a car?

Recent social media claims have insinuated owning a car is out of the financial reach of normal families in Denmark. We look at the data.

Can 'middle class' Danish people afford to own a car?

Carla Sands, the former United States Ambassador to Denmark, was last week ridiculed for claiming large parts of the Danish population cannot afford to own a car.

Sands, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump and served as ambassador from 2017-2021, claimed in a Twitter post on Friday that “in Denmark, middle class people can’t afford to drive a car”.

People in Denmark “have a bike and take the train for long trips. My embassy driver would bike an hour in the snow to get to work,” Sands tweeted.

The tweet elicited responses from Danish politicians members of the Danish public, with Sands largely mocked for the claim.

Tweeting a picture of himself on a bicycle, former Minister of Transport Benny Engelbrecht wrote that “I can assure you that using the bike for urban mobility is a question of choice, not economy for most Danes. This is for instance me in my time as minister — and don’t worry, we could afford a car.”

READ ALSO: ‘Danish royals can’t afford a car’: Former US envoy to Denmark ridiculed over cycling tweet

According to official data, there were 2.79 million private cars on Danish roads at the beginning of 2022. The country’s population is 5.8 million.

Around 276 million cars were registered in 2020 in the United States, where the population is around 330 million. So there are indeed more cars per person in the US than in Denmark.

But is this really because Danes can’t afford cars, or are other factors more important?

It’s unclear exactly who Sands was referring to by “middle class people”, since Danish society does not have such highly differentiated social classes as, for example, the United Kingdom.

Nor does the Scandinavian country have the sort of chasm between rich, middle and poor incomes that isolates communities from each other enough to make classes easily definable – even though economic segregation is reported to be on the increase.

Official statistics suggest that families in Denmark are becoming increasingly likely to own a car. A July 2021 report from official agency Statistics Denmark notes a significant increase in the number of car-owning households between 2011 and 2021.

The number of households who own one or more cars increased by 233,800 over the ten-year period, according to the agency.

That equates to 62.3 percent of all households owning a car in 2021, compared to 59.6 percent a decade prior.

READ ALSO: Six things to know about buying a used car in Denmark

In four Danish municipalities – all located in Jutland – over 30 percent of families own more than one car (i.e. two cars or more). This was not the case anywhere in the country in 2011.

The agency’s data shows that there is a difference between car ownership in urban and rural areas – supporting Engelbrecht’s argument that bicycles are a popular choice for urban mobility. In the Greater Copenhagen area, under 60 percent of families own a car, while the proportion can increase to over 80 percent in municipalities just outside of the capital’s urban sprawl.

There is also a difference between the types of family households with relatively high and low car ownership.

Amongst families with high levels of car ownership are couples with children, of whom over 90 percent owned a car in 2021.

People in executive jobs also owned a car in over 90 percent of cases in 2021, while 84 percent of those who lived in detached house also owned a car.

This supports the suggestion that the more affluent are more likely to own a car, which is perhaps unsurprising.

Single people without children owned a car in 40 percent of cases in 2021, while those with the lowest amount of disposable income – the 10 percent of the population with the smallest amount of monthly disposable income – owned a car in 14 percent of cases.

People who live in Greater Copenhagen or another city with 100,000 or more residents owned cars in 42-48 percent of cases in 2021. A similar proportion – 39 percent – applies to people who live in apartments.

Given the high cost of living in Copenhagen, where rent and house prices are far higher than elsewhere in Denmark, it’s conceivable that, if all other factors are equal, a household in the capital might have less money available to run a car. Or perhaps they just don’t need one?

Small towns or villages with populations less than 2,000 had car ownership percentages of 77-80 percent in 2021, much higher than in Copenhagen.

A separate 2021 analysis from Statistics Denmark states that close proximity to a bus, rail, metro or light rail network correlates to the amount of people who own cars.

According to the analysis, around 360,000 people over the age of 18 in Denmark have easy access to a very high level of public transportation – meaning at least 10 departures per hour and more than one type of service located with 500 metres of where they live.

Just under one million have slightly lower access – 4-9 departures per hour – while around one million do not have a permanent bus stop or rail station within 500 metres of their home.

In Greater Copenhagen, 77 percent of all people have a high public transport service level. This falls to under one percent in towns with fewer than 200 inhabitants.

More than 80 percent of families in areas with the lowest levels of public transport own one or more cars. This figure is 39 percent in areas with very high service.

The analysis also found that families in areas with high levels of public transport coverage are less likely to have a car than families in areas with medium or low levels of public transport.

Calculations intended to correct the trend for factors including income, age, family type, children, socioeconomic group and commuter distances found that people in rural areas with less public transport were still more likely to own cars, albeit by a smaller difference.

For a family in an area with very high public transport coverage, the probability of having a car was calculated to be 57 percent. An equivalent family (with the same income, city size, distance to work etc.) in a low public transport area was found to be 68 percent likely to have a car, the report notes.