Dutch curses

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An article in The Economist has two titles in different editions, both datelined March 26, 2020 Amsterdam:

  1. Typhus off!
    "Why Dutch swear words are so poxy
    English insults often refer to sex; Dutch ones, to disease"
  2. Swearing
    "Dutch disease
    A country where sicknesses are curses"

The content is the same:

In most languages, if someone said you had cancer, it would be a diagnosis. In Dutch, it is more likely to be an insult. Kankerlijer (“cancer-sufferer”) is one of a long list of Dutch profanities and expletives derived from diseases. An undesirable person might be told to “typhus off” (optyfussen) or “get consumption” (krijg de tering). If in (American) English you laugh your ass off, in Dutch you might “laugh yourself the pleurisy” (lachen je de pleuris). No one in England has been called a “poxy bitch” for centuries, but in the Netherlands you can still call someone a pokkenteef. A damned long way is a klereneind (“cholera-end”). And so on.

Because expletives are based on social taboos, in most cultures they are linked to sex, excrement or religion. Many Dutch swear words are as well, but they often feel weaker than the medical ones. Schijt is less like its English cognate and more like the gentler French merde. Mierenneuker (“ant-fucker”) is an anodyne expression for someone who fusses over details. “Whore” is an insult in Dutch too, but when the rapper Lil’ Kleine had a beef with pop singer Anouk last autumn, he went with the harsher kankerhoer (“cancer-whore”).

Scholars are not sure why the Dutch swear with illnesses. One theory links it to Calvinism, the puritanical strain of Protestantism that caught on here in the 16th century, which holds that the virtue of those destined for heaven will show itself in worldly prosperity, health and hygiene. “There was a shift in focus from the afterlife to this life, which, for example, diminished the strength of ‘God damn it’,” says Marten van der Meulen, a Dutch linguist and author of a book on swearing. On this theory, “a curse might be stronger if you used something in actual life, like a disease.”

However, there is also what linguists call the frequency hypothesis: the Dutch may curse with diseases simply because it caught on. Language, as Laurie Anderson said, is a virus. Perhaps someday Dutch kids will savage each other on the playground with cries of coronalijer.

This linguistic usage of "Dutch disease" is not to be confused with one drawn from a different discipline, economics:

In economics, the Dutch disease is the apparent causal relationship between the increase in the economic development of a specific sector (for example natural resources) and a decline in other sectors (like the manufacturing sector or agriculture). The putative mechanism is that as revenues increase in the growing sector (or inflows of foreign aid), the given nation's currency becomes stronger (appreciates) compared to currencies of other nations (manifest in an exchange rate). This results in the nation's other exports becoming more expensive for other countries to buy, and imports becoming cheaper, making those sectors less competitive. While it most often refers to natural resource discovery, it can also refer to "any development that results in a large inflow of foreign currency, including a sharp surge in natural resource prices, foreign assistance, and foreign direct investment".

The term was coined in 1977 by The Economist to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector in the Netherlands after the discovery of the large Groningen natural gas field in 1959.


As noted in the final paragraph, this usage was also coined by The Economist.


Selected readings

"The paucity of curse words in Japanese" (9/4/14)

"Roll out of here like an egg, Xi" (4/9/20) — with additional references

See also under "Swear words" throughout the archives.

Dutch profanity (Wikipedia)

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 8:06 am

    "No one in England has been called a “poxy bitch” for centuries" — I cannot help but feel that the author grew up amongst a very different demographic to myself.

    "Poxy" is still quite a common word in the UK, often used when something fails to function properly, for example : "poxy (insert your own preferred nationality + optional intensifier) crap — why can they never make anything that does what it's supposed to ?".

  2. fev said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 8:54 am

    That's the first place I've seen antfucking outside a dictionary of Castilian slang:

    Cuanto más digas, más te joden las hormigas.

  3. Peter B. Golden said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 10:15 am

    Зараза (infection, disease) is a mild curse/insult in Russian.
    Холера was also used in the past (19th century outbreaks) as a curse, but is dated today, except when naming the actual disease.

  4. Kristian said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 10:40 am

    Don't the Dutch feel these swear words stigmatize sick people? (I'm particularly thinking of cancer patients)

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:09 am

    I don't think the Dutch are alone in being seemingly insensitive to the choice of pejorative terms related to sickness (etc). Within my lifetime I have heard the words "Cretin", "Cripple", "Moron", "Mongol", "Mong" and many others used as terms of abuse. For an academic discussion thereof, see (for example) Clark and Marsh (2002), Patriarchy in the UK: The Language of Disability.

  6. Daan said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:24 am

    @Kristian There is a lot of extra detail and nuance that is hard to explain. Most of the 'common' diseases to swear with, as shown in the article, are almost extinct diseases (in NL) like consumption and cholera, and the swear words are antiquated unused names for the diseases. The association with the actual disease isn't particularly strong, and in fact I suspect a lot of people wouldn't be able to match the swear to the disease in some cases. The one exception is of course cancer, which is pretty controversial. I don't know many people who'd object to most of these swears in a casual environment (I think the 'bitch' part of 'pokkenteef' is more controversial than the disease), but you will get told off for swearing with cancer. It gets more complex though, as swearing with cancer is getting quite strongly associated with things like social class, it mostly being a thing for a particular group of lower class youth, much like the 'chav' subculture in the UK. There are more details like its connection to the dutch schooling system separating kids rather early, but long story short: I think most dutch people agree that one should't swear with cancer, and most of those that do are either in a rebellious subculture that has more issues, or in hiphop.

  7. cameron said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:28 am

    @Philip Taylor and Kristian, note that Americans throw around the word "spastic" and its abbreviation "spas" pretty freely, whereas the word is considered quite offensive in British English.

  8. Daan said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:34 am

    @Cameron Oh yeah it wasn't really mentioned in the article, but of course the equivalents of "spastic", "mongol" and "autistic" get thrown around a lot in dutch and are in my experience roughly as controversial as in (UK) english.

  9. Daan said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:38 am

    Actually, now that I think of it "mongol" has more overlap with "retarded" in english, in how I feel like it's pretty commonplace but getting more controversial. Might be because I'm surrounded with more mature people. It's all details though, and it just goes to show that dutch isn't particularly unique in this.

  10. Marina said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:42 am

    @Kristian: using 'kanker' as a swear word is considered offensive, much more so than the other diseases mentioned. Many of the others are hardly used in their original meaning anymore, since those diseases have become less common and in some cases their names have a!so changed (tering->tuberculose, pleuris->pleuritis, klere->cholera).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:55 am

    Yes, I forgot "spastic", but I don't think I have heard it used as a (British) term of abuse for maybe 50 years, although I may have heard "spaz" more recently than that.

  12. cameron said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 12:37 pm

    @Daan and Philip Taylor, in American English "mongol" was never, to my knowledge, used as a term of abuse. "Mongoloid" was used as a clinical term, but if it was ever thrown around as a playground insult it was long before my time.

    By the time Devo put out the song "Mongoloid" as their first single in 1977 (UK version in '78), the term was already somewhat quaint: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fww4Md5pKQ8

  13. Nancy said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 1:34 pm

    Strong Language blog on disease-cursing in Dutch and Yiddish:

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 1:44 pm

    Daan earlier used "swears" (sb. pl.), and in the article to which Nancy links I find "these swears have real impact … Dutch swears may also invoke illnesses". For me (native speaker, <Br.E>) "swears" is possible only as a verb. In what dialects of English can it exist as a plural noun ?

  15. James Harbeck said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 1:53 pm

    "Swears" is, in my own experience, in current use as a noun in Canadian and American English (less frequently than the verb, but not unacceptable). I find that the Oxford English Dictionary lists it as a noun in this sense with British citations back to 1871, though it says "now colloquial." I think the succinct answer to Philip Taylor's question is "Not your variety of British English, apparently, but various others."

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 2:01 pm

    Hmmm, seems to have died out around a century ago in <Br.E> — "1915 D. L. R. Lorimer Pashtu I. 194 Khlākah. Damn me. (An Afridi swear, said to be properly Khudāké.)"

  17. Frans said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 2:07 pm


    > Don't the Dutch feel these swear words stigmatize sick people? (I'm particularly thinking of cancer patients)

    No, I feel it stigmatizes cancer. And also that we don't care about the words used very much compared to what's actually being expressed. As Philip Taylor wrote, we are "seemingly insensitive" to words in and of themselves. Some people do take the Angle-Saxon view.

    Not that using the word "cancer" marks you as someone of good taste, mind you.

  18. cliff arroyo said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 3:17 pm

    In Polish 'cholera' is a semi-swear word. It's not really obscene but bad enough that I've seen parents reprimand children for using it and some people use euphemisms for it like 'cholewa' (part of a boot) or Holender (Dutchman).

    A couple of years ago I watched some videos on Mexican popular culture by a Costa Rican who denounced anything he disliked as 'cancer'… I don't know if that was just him or not.

  19. cliff arroyo said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 3:20 pm

    Here's a sample video (with English subs) in the series I mentioned


  20. Joe Fineman said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 5:37 pm

    Maurice Samuel, in _In Praise of Yiddish_ (1971), has a section on Yiddish curses, many of which refer to diseases. Indeed, one may simply say "Krenken zoll er" (May he be sick), or more indirectly, "Shraybn zol men im retseptn" (May prescriptions be written for him") or even "Oyf doktoyrim zol er es oysgeben" (May he spend it [all] on doctors). More specifically, one may wish pain on the belly, back, fingers, etc. Named diseases, however, seem to be rare; Samuel mentions only "kholerye".

  21. Rebecca said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 5:53 pm

    I still hear “measly” from time to time, but I wonder why the insult is that something is meager. That doesn’t strike me as particularly related to measles

  22. David Marjanović said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 8:32 pm

    Schijt is less like its English cognate and more like the gentler French merde.

    How is merde at all gentle?

    in American English "mongol" was never, to my knowledge, used as a term of abuse. "Mongoloid" was used as a clinical term, but if it was ever thrown around as a playground insult it was long before my time.

    Mongo was thrown around like that in German-speaking places in living memory. Perhaps it still is.

    In Polish 'cholera' is a semi-swear word. It's not really obscene but bad enough that I've seen parents reprimand children for using it and some people use euphemisms for it like 'cholewa' (part of a boot) or Holender (Dutchman).

    Notably, it's never applied to people. It's one of the options for what to say when a catastrophe has happened (the others being o Jezu and o kurwa).

  23. Bob Ladd said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 12:59 am

    @David Marjanović:
    Merde is "gentler" simply in the sense that it's not as strongly taboo as shit or schijt. There are fewer contexts where it would raise an eyebrow. I remember being struck by this when, in my early teens, having grown up in North America, I spent a year with my family in French-speaking Switzerland. Without really having words to describe what I was noticing, I nevertheless realised that saying merde didn't count as such a "bad word" as shit.

  24. cliff arroyo said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 3:28 am

    "It's one of the options for what to say when a catastrophe has happened"

    I'd say more like strong displeasure at a particular situation…

  25. Frans said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 4:20 am

    @David Marjanović

    I'd be inclined to say there's barely such a thing as a Dutch swear word that goes much beyond shit in severity. Merde and schijt are far lower on the scale, in English terms closer to euphemistic expressions like gosh and sheesh. Cancer's more like shit and there simply isn't anything like fuck.

    There are some obvious exceptions along the lines of nikker (feels antiquated to me, from nigger, English loan), mof (German, like kraut in English), and geitenneuker (goat fucker, meaning something like Muslim). In that case the meaning of the word is inherently offensive and discriminatory, but I don't think the meaning of a phrase like "nigger is the woman of the world" would be so grandiosely overlooked in Dutch just because of the usage of an inappropriate word.

  26. Andrew Usher said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 9:54 pm

    I highly doubt Americans see 'spastic' and 'spaz' (the usual spelling, sometimes 'spazz' but 'spas' would be odd) as actual references to any disease or condition. They've become quite rare, anyway. On the other hand, at least amone the younger Internet generation 'autistic' is common, and people using it do (think they) know about the condition.

    Philip Taylor:
    I agree that 'swear' should be a verb only, and have said so before. But the linguists apparently overruled that; if I wanted a single monosyllable to denote the type of words in question, I'd use 'curse', certainly not 'swear'.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 5:04 am

    Or even the somewhat old-fashioned "oath", as in "he swore a mighty oath".

  28. Freddy said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 6:06 am

    Talked to my Dutch friend. 'Haha it's true. People swear with diseases all the time. A lot of people get mad at you if you use Cancer as a swearing word. It's always like "I know somebody bla bla".'

  29. Martha said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 1:34 pm

    I always wondered why "merde" isn't translated as "poop." Then anglophones wouldn't think it was as harsh as "shit." (Or, probably also, so francophones learning English wouldn't think "shit" was mild.)

  30. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 2:18 pm

    From Mark Metcalf:

    Letters IRT the Economist article on swearing

    Vox pox


    Your intriguing article on why so many Dutch swear words relate to disease instead of sex made me wonder why in Belgium, where most people speak the same language, people do not use the same curses (“Dutch disease”, March 28th). In the 16th century, after the Calvinist revolt and the separation of the Netherlands, our histories diverged and the south experienced a vigorous counter-reform under the Spanish monarchy.

    As a result, swearing in Dutch-speaking Belgium relates to the Catholic religion: loop naar de duivel (go to the devil), Godverdomme(Goddamn), and so on. But of late, youngsters in both countries use the same American street English they pick up from television, cinema, festivals, etc. So that after so many centuries they are once again united, at least in swearing.

    Former liberal MP


    Ironically, that English four-letter word starting with an f may well have originated from the Dutch fok, meaning to breed. It was re-adopted with an interesting twist. Instead of using the English word literally, Dutch youths domesticated it into their native fok. A fine example of how modernisation can sometimes marry the old fashioned.

    Deventer, Netherlands


    On your suggestion that one day we will have coronalijer doing the rounds in Dutch playgrounds, I would like to add “corona train wreck”. This could apply to the performance of our finance minister during the pandemic, such as when he called for an investigation into countries without the financial ability to weather the crisis. This combination of pettiness and poor timing torpedoed an excellent opportunity to promote the spirit of the eu and pull together.


    Sotogrande, Spain

  31. Helma said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 5:32 pm

    Interesting that there is at least some documented overlap (de klere, cholera) between Dutch and Yiddish here. The comment about Belgians not using the same curses make me think there is more to the Yiddish connection here. A lot of things I grew up thinking of as older 'Amsterdam dialect' turned out to be Yiddish (I knew this before I moved to Chicago and met Jerry Sadock, but he certainly helped!). This predilection in the Netherlands may be another example of Yiddish influence on spoken Dutch.

  32. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 9:01 pm

    I can remember "mongo" being a mild swear word used by teenagers in the 80s & 90s in the Midwest.

  33. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 3:22 am

    "in Belgium, where most people speak the same language". Really ? I thought that roughly 60% soeak Flemish, 40% speak French, and a tiny minority speak German.

  34. Alexander Browne said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 10:27 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    Yes, that's a strange statement from a Belgian politician in particular, considering how divided by linguistic community Belgian government and politics is. My two theories are either that the statement is a victim of the Economist's editing (maybe he referred to Flanders or the Flemish Region originally originally but it was removed) or maybe it's better explained by the fact that he was a member of Flemish nationalist parties (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andr%C3%A9_Monteyne).

    The Catholic-related swearing reminds me of Quebec French (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_French_profanity).

  35. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 10:31 am

    "most" — more than 50%

  36. Alexander Browne said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 10:41 am

    Logically true, but I feel that statement seems wrong with such a fairly close divide. It doesn't help that I think he meant

    "[…] Belgium, where most people speak the same language (as in the Netherlands)"

    but I tend to hear it as

    "[…] Belgium, where most people speak the same language (as other Belgians)"

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 10:50 am

    '"most" — more than 50%' : more the sort of argument I would expect to hear from a spokesman for the Chinese Communist Party than from your good self, Victor ! Yes, of course "most" means more than 50% if one is being pedantic, but to state publicly, of a European country that is more divided by language than virtually any other, that "most people speak the same language", may be statistically justifiable but leaves the author wide open to accusations of partisanship, IMHO.

  38. Frans said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    It might potentially be worth noting that in some (mainly West-Flemish?) Dutch dialects you can, at least historically, say things like "the most half" (the biggest half).

    NB In Standard Dutch the word definitely means the same thing as in English.

  39. RJP said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    Surely the French for "poop" would be "caca". It is a little childish.

    I think you and Bob Ladd are probably right that "merde" is milder than "shit", although these are difficult judgements, because assessments of how strong "shit" is will vary depending on time, place, social class, age, etc.

    However, "crap" might be a better translation (rather than "poop").

    Now, I am not a native Francophone and have never lived in a French-speaking country (which makes it difficult, because non-native speakers tend to underestimate the strength of foreign swearwords – but Bob Ladd does have such experience, so I read his point with interest). However, about ten years ago I had a French penfriend who would often substitute "m…" for "merde". It's difficult to argue from one anecdote and it could be that my friend was exceptionally coy – but I've never known anyone put asterisks into the word "poop" – whereas people do occasionally do it with "crap".

    Note: if you look up "merde" at larousse.fr, it is classed as "vulgaire" in its literal sense, although it is "très familier" in metaphorical senses.

    Kristian ("Don't the Dutch feel these swear words stigmatize sick people? ") – other people have answered that better than I could, but I just wanted to add one further thought. Do the English swearwords "wanker", "tosser", "bugger", "sod", "cocksucker" etc stigmatise masturbation, anal sex, homosexuality, oral sex, etc? It doesn't really seem to be the case. It's not a very exact comparison but it does show the literal meanings aren't necessarily what anyone has in mind, and aren't even necessarily brought to mind, when the words are used.

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 1:16 pm

    I think that, in British English at least, "bugger" and "sod" have lost all associations with their original meaning (except when they are intentionally used to refer to such acts), whilst "wanker" and "tosser" are still very powerful and carry the exact connotations that they are meant to. "Cocksucker" has not, I think, really made any inroads into British speech.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 2:48 pm

    "leaves the author wide open to accusations of partisanship"

    I have absolutely no partisan stake in this argument whatsoever.

  42. Philip Taylor said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 3:17 pm

    But they were not your words to which I was referring, Victor — they were the words of ANDRÉ MONTEYNE, former liberal MP, Brussels, who is quoted above as writing "in Belgium, where most people speak the same language". OK, it was you who argued that >50% is "most", by definition, and of course you are correct, but when I quoted the exact phrase used by M. Monteyne to my wife, who is a trained statistician with a Masters in O.R., she said that while statistically "most" does indeed mean "more than 50%", in the context of M. Monteyne's utterance she would expect "the man in the street" to interpret that as meaning at least a ratio of 2:1. So it was not you whom I was suggesting might be thought of as being partisan, but rather M. Monteyne.

  43. RJP said,

    April 22, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

    For discussion of "most", see here: https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2510

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 3:21 am

    Thank you for that link, RJP — most informative and interesting, as were the articles sub-linked.

    Having now lain in bed puzzling over this for most of the night, I now think that there are multiple factors involved :

    1) Analogy — Just as we have "good, better, best", some would argue that we also have "some", "many", "most". And since one should not use a superlative when only two things are involved, one should not use "most" when describing a population that is split 60:40. "More people in Belgium speak the same language than do not" is fine; "most people in Belgium speak the same language" is not.

    2) In any country with only two languages (which is virtually true of Belgium, German being spoken by only 1%), it is almost a truism to say that most people in the country speak the same language, since the probability of the population being split exactly 50:50 is 0. If, however, Belgium were a country in which French, Flemish and German were all spoken by 1/3, then it would clearly be wrong to claim that the majority of its people speak the same language.

    3) The next issue seems even more complex — what is the opposite of "to speak the same language" ? Is it "to not speak the same language", "to speak different languages", or "to speak a different language" ? If we approximate the population of Belgium as 10 million, and if 60% of those speak Flemish, then if we ignore for now the superlatives rule we can say (as did M. MONTEYNE) that "most peopler in Belgium speak the same language", and from that we can infer that 6 million speak the same language. So what can we say of the other 4 million ? That they "do not speak the same language" ? In the main, they do speak the same language, but it is not the same "same language" as that spoken by the Flemish speakers, it is French (apart from the 100 000 who speak German). Put more simply, if 6 million Belgians speak the same language, what can the other 4 milion be said to speak ? I think that the only reasonable answer is that they speak "a different language", although the German speakers could reasonably argue that those 4 million "speak different languages".

  45. RJP said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:07 am

    Reading your latest comment, I wonder if you misinterpreted Monteyne. He didn't mean to say that most Belgians speak the same language (as each other) but rather that most Belgians speak the same language (as Dutch people do). You probably still disagree with his statement, but to quote him as saying "speak the same language" out of context makes it sound like he was referring to linguistic uniformity in Belgium rather than to the fact that Dutch is very widely spoken there.

  46. Frans said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:09 am

    @Philip Taylor

    I didn't catch on to it earlier, but you may be misinterpreting the phrase? What he said is that most people in Belgium speak the same language as in the Netherlands. This is on the low end for most but perfectly acceptable to me. It doesn't imply that most people in Belgium literally speak the same language.

  47. Frans said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:11 am

    Apologies for the repetition, I was apparently typing that while RJP posted. :)

  48. Andrew Usher said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:44 am

    As the above comments indicate, the real problem was not 'most' but 'same' – the same as what? The only previous language mantioned was Dutch, and under that interpretation the sentence can hardly be controversial, but it seems the context wasn't clear enough.

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:53 am

    Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. M. MONTEYNE did indeed write "Your intriguing article on why so many Dutch swear words relate to disease […] made me wonder why in Belgium, where most people speak the same language, …", and thus almost certainly meant "speak the same language as is spoken in the Netherlands". Entirely my fault for failing to realise this at the outset, but I think that the digression has nonetheless been interesting, and arguably worthwhile.

  50. rpsms said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 12:34 pm

    Wouldn't "kanker" in this case be more appropriately translated as "chancre" (as in "chancre sore" which is the primary transmission form of syphilus?).

    Old French "chancre"; English "canker"; latin "cancer".

  51. Frans said,

    April 26, 2020 @ 11:32 am


    Back in Middle Dutch canker would have been any malignant swelling or wound that resisted regular treatment (cf. here), and such a wider meaning is not unlikely to have commonly persisted into 19th century vernacular. So while I think the point is a good one, focusing too much on one specific disease may be nothing but a repetition of the same mistake.

    Incidentally, the direct Dutch derivative of chancre is sjanker (i.e., certain venereal diseases).

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