Opinion: Mierenneukers-arrest

POSTED: 05/16/12 1:01 PM

Sometimes, small countries have it in them to rise above themselves. Take the Netherlands. It has a decent judicial system wherein the Supreme Court has the last word. Everybody thought that was a fair deal, until this esteemed institution ruled in favor of a homeless man who had dared to call a policeman names.
The ruling is already a classic in the Netherlands, because it will go down in history as the mierenneukers-arrest. Literally translated, a mierenneuker is an ant-fucker but because the English language has a subtler approach to these kinds of expressions – if only to protect the souls of those who’d rather take a root canal treatment than hear, let alone pronounce, a swear word – mierenneuker usually is translated into nitpicker.
A nit is the egg of a louse, and the word also stands for head lice, trivial details and a unit of luminance. Given the choice between nitpicker and mierenneuker plenty of people would take the second option any time to insult someone.
This is what the arrest is all about: a homeless man in the eastern city of Enschede was approached by a policeman who took his can of beer away and threw it in a garbage bin. Mierenneuker, the homeless man muttered. The policeman was not amused and wrote a report.
The case went to court where the homeless man was declared guilty on two occasions, though the court thought better of imposing a penalty.
That’s where the whole silly affair should have ended. But it didn’t, because the homeless man (or maybe his attorney – we’re not sure about that) took the case to the Supreme Court. That’s where the real controversy started, after this court ruled “that it is permitted to call a policeman under certain circumstances a mierenneuker.”
Only when this appears from the context, mierenneuker is a swear word, the Supreme Court ruled.
That ruling did not sit well with everybody. Predictably, the Christian Democratic Appeal made an issue of it. MP Coskun Çörü wants to ask questions about it in parliament, though what purpose this could serve is unclear to us. Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten will probably not want to do a Wilsoe and interfere with a decision by the Supreme Court.
NRC Handelsblad wrote yesterday that there has been research in the past into which words qualify as a swear word towards police officers. Courts always honored words like klootzak and teringlijer with a fine, but mierenneuker did not, a legal magazine found. Some prosecutors demanded a fine; others dismissed it as a minor infringement.
Calling a cop a pancake, a know-it-all or a pastry cook remains relatively safe in the Netherlands. This reminds us of soccer fans who used to insult referees with a combination of the word dog and the word for its sex organ. Pressured to refrain from the chant hi-ha-honden …., the soccer fans quickly found an alternative to their satisfaction: hi-ha-hondenriem (dog leash).

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