By Zoë van Duijn
Last year when I visited South Africa for the first time I fell in love with the place. Since then I’ve returned twice and this time, I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon. When I first arrived in South Africa, I was amazed at the variety of the languages spoken here. The country currently acknowledges 11 official languages. However around 30 languages are actually spoken throughout it. One of the main languages, Afrikaans, is quite easy for me to understand because of how similar it is to my first language: Dutch. In the area I currently live in, the three languages that are most common are Afrikaans (49.7%), isiXhosa (24.7%), and English (20.3%). I’ve noticed that a lot of my Afrikaans-speaking friends use a lot of Afrikaans words when they speak English, from the often-used “lekker” to “mal” (crazy) and “kos” (food). When we’ve had a “lekker” surf, we head home to make some “kos”.
One of the most interesting words I’ve come across, is the word poes. In Dutch, just like in many other languages, this word means cat. Yes, it can also be used to refer to a vagina, but not necessarily. And when it is used to refer to a vagina, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a nickname. Some might even say it’s a cute nickname.
Now the Afrikaans use of the word poes is something else entirely. In Old Afrikaans, the word poes could still refer to a cat. When an old Afrikaans woman sees a cat, and claims she’s seen a poes cross the road, younger people will blush and correct her, “nee, oma, oor die pad stap ’n kat.” Because in recent years, the word poes has come to have a new meaning. It’s slang for vagina. Not just slang, you can’t just say you’ve gone to get your poes waxed. Because the word poes here is considered to be absolutely disgusting. I suppose that in Dutch the usage of the word poes is similar to the usage of the word kut (or “cunt” in English), although poes can also be used as an adjective. I’ve often heard male friends of mine talk about their morning surf and say the phrase “the water was poes-cold”. I’ve also heard it being used as a substitute for the word God in “oh my poes”.
The area that I currently live is fairly conservative, compared to some of the bigger cities in South Africa. Many of the city’s population are Christians, and many believe that using God’s name in vain is a sin, so they choose to use other words. A common term in South Africa is “Oh my word” or for those who do use swear words even “oh my fuck”. And then there’s my favourite use of the word, which is “jou ma se poes” (your mother’s vagina), which I heard just today when a friend of mine stubbed his toe.
Now, as a foreigner, I’m just trying to fit in here a little. I pick up slang here and there, I’ve learned to use the word “kos”, “mal”, I’ve learned to call sandwiches “sarmies”, and my sneakers “tekkies”. I’ve also learned to call my friends’ parents and older relatives not by their names, but “oom and tannie” as a form of respect. When trying to learn a new language, or a new form of a language you’re already familiar with, you make mistakes, obviously. I’ve definitely pronounced words wrong or used a word in the wrong situation. The same happened when I used the word poes for the first time. I had gone for a swim earlier that morning, and when a male friend of mine asked how it was, I said “it was nice, but the water was poes-cold”, the exact same way I had heard my male friends say it a hundred times before. I was met with a deafening silence. When I asked what was wrong, I was told that I really shouldn’t use that word, it was unbecoming for a lady to use that word.
So not only was the use of the word poes, slang for vagina, not decent to be used, it was specifically unbecoming for it to be used by a woman. A woman. Using the word vagina. More unbecoming than a man. Needless to say, I was somewhat disgusted, and intrigued, and wanted to get to the bottom of it. I brought up the topic with many different friends, all with different backgrounds, some fluent in Afrikaans, some only knew a few words. The opinions varied on the general use of the word poes, some thought it was disgusting no matter who used it, others used it all the time. However, there was one thing everyone seemed to agree on. It’s a bad word, but it’s even worse when used by awoman. And come to think of it, I’ve never actually heard any of my female friends use the word.
In the past few years, with the rise of a new wave of feminism, the connotation of certain words and their sexist nature have come to light. I often find myself wanting to say “grow some balls” or “man up” when they need to get tough and get shit done. Or “don’t be a pussy” when they’re being weak. I have to consciously use a different term. Because when I think about it, the fact that people still use “pussy” to refer to someone being weak, is actually such a mystery to me. As Trevor Noah so eloquently put it: “The vagina is frighteningly powerful. A human being comes out of the vagina. And still, it continues to operate, it continues to work, after a human has just come out. You’re saying it’s weak? You just sit on a penis wrong and it breaks. “Don’t be a penis,” that should be the phrase. I wish I was a pussy.”
The vagina, the way to the uterus, to the literal source of life, the way everyone has had to travel to come into the world, is actually such a strong organ. Such a vital organ, so how could it possibly be conceived as weak? Because women used to be perceived as weak, of course. But this is 2021, and we (should) know better by now. Interestingly, it’s quite the opposite in this situation. The word is perceived as so very strong, that it can only be used by men. Does this make any sense? No, I don’t think so.
Now I understand that in this country I can be perceived as a loud, opinionated girl with no filter. Granted, just like any other Dutch person I tend to speak my mind without thinking it through too much. In the Netherlands we call it direct, here they call it rude, but kind of funny. I tend to surprise people with the language coming from my mouth. People often find it unbelievable that a woman of my size, with my blonde hair and my overalls, is capable of such language, and is not afraid to discuss these words, and dive deep into the issue. Now don’t get me wrong, I like a good swear word every now and then, but that’s not the language I’m referring to. I’m talking about the use of the word sex, vagina, penis or even contraception. When I’m on my period and people ask what’s up, I reply “my uterus is giving me a hard time” and I’m sometimes met with blushing and uncomfortable giggles. “Oh Zoë, you’re so foreign, so exotic.”
Now the reaction to me wanting to discuss the use of the words poes with my friends has been interesting. Some younger friends of mine, particularly female, are so visibly uncomfortable when I try to discuss the use of the word poes, they flinch every time I say it, and keep silent throughout the discussion. It’s fascinating that a girl is so afraid of a word that means vagina. I’ve even heard some of my female friends call it “the P-word”, or just calling it “the Word”. It seems as though the word is revered with as much disgust and fear as Lord Voldemort. Most boys, interestingly, realise the absurdity of the stigma around the use of the word, the more they discuss it. They start off with a classic “that’s just the way it is in this country, you wouldn’t understand, being a foreigner”, to claiming they’ll try not to use the word anymore, because it’s vulgar no matter your gender. Later that same evening those same men used the word in practically every sentence.
I’m sure that to a certain extent these people are just humouring me. I get it. This feisty foreigner walks into your town questioning your use of your language; what does she know? But similar to how Jennifer Fitta, earlier this year offered that we should reclaim the word “bitch” to mean powerful, strong, and assertive, rather than loud, mean and rude when used to describe a woman in a powerful position (Fitta, 2020), I think the word poes and its effect on women vs. men is not fit for 2021. Seeing how here they seem to realise, even appreciate, their meaning and the weight of the word poes, why must we use it at all, if it is indeed so ugly? Or better yet, why can’t women use it, just as much as men can? If anything, wouldn’t we have more right to use it? Because in case you didn’t know, women, and their body parts, are actually poes-powerful.