Swearing in French

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Different cultures find different words offensive. What the French consider to be gros mots – or curse words – pretty much mean nothing to me, even though I understand what the individual words and phrases mean. But their power to shock is lost on someone for whom French is a second language, and one learned in middle age.

During the first few months of my stay in France several years ago, the phrase of the moment was something that then-president Nicolas Sarkozy said in response to a participant’s comment at an agricultural fair. A man refused to shake Sarkozy’s outstretched hand, saying, “Ah non, touche-moi pas ! Tu me salis!” This was pretty rude way to address a sitting president. First by saying, “Don’t touch me, you’ll dirty me” – which could be rendered in more colloquial English as – “Get your filthy hands off me.” Then by using  the familiar second-person verb form to address the president, rather than the more formal second-person plural. This made what he said more patronizing.

Such exchanges can happen when an unpopular president tries to impose a manufactured camera-ready goodwill on an irritated citizen. But Sarkozy went further than he perhaps should have, especially for a president trying to glad-hand the public, by saying, “Casse-toi alors, pauvre con.” Unfortunately for Sarkozy, his words were  caught on camera and quickly spread.

There are several ways of translating the phrase into English, perhaps the least vulgar being something along the lines of, “Get lost, you moron.” But it was worse in French, especially since it was a president who spoke in such a familiar and, for the French, a quite-boorish manner.

The phrase became an internet meme, and was shouted or printed on signs during demonstrations that spring and summer – I even received it on a button when I was leaving the opera one night, as a noisy group was protesting the new age of retirement. But the phrase’s power as a vulgar kiss-off was pretty much lost on me, even though French friends had explained to me why it was so noteworthy. The thing is, when curses need footnotes, their immediate shock value diminishes.

Still, you can shock by accident. I once said something untoward without meaning to, repeating to a new friend a phrase I’d heard, thinking it meant simply, “What are you doing there?” What I said was, “Qu’est-ce que tu fous là?” – having heard it used in a French crime thriller that I’d recently watched. My friend Pierre jumped in immediately: “Don’t mind him, he’s American, he’s just learning French.” Apparently if you say something like that, using the verb foutre rather than the more neutral faire, you’re adding either a too-familiar spin to the question or you’re being aggressive and hostile (foutre can mean to fuck, so it was as if I were asking someone, “What the fuck are you doing there?” – which wasn’t at all the meaning or the tone that I wanted to convey). The new friend whom I’d addressed so maladroitly simply shrugged and laughed. He understood I didn’t mean to offend. Much of swearing depends on context.

I have since learned my fair share of deliberately vulgar expressions in French – everyone wants to know how to swear in a new language, even if, like me, you use those foreign swear words sparingly. Several interestingly colorful expressions came to me courtesy of watching the gripping French police series, Engrenages, where the police and the criminals speak in the kind of language that would be censored on American broadcast television.

You often hear the word putain, which translates as whore, but can mean, depending on the context, shit or fuck. Putain de merde literally means whore of shit, but signifies something along the lines of fuck off (which you could say is also, in a way, the meaning of casse-toi, pauvre con). Like all languages, French has a myriad of colorful expressions for putting people down.

But I’m also glad to know that in general the French don’t censor spoken language on television or radio. People realize that something’s vulgar when they hear it and they deal with it. (And if it’s something the president says, then you can also use it as a satirical weapon against him.) Americans are more prudish, of course – images of violence are fine, but violent-sounding words are bad. Unless you’re watching something on pay channels, then the cruder the better.

Many French (and many people in other non-English-speaking countries) think that all Americans say fuck all the time. This is easy to believe if you watch many American films and premium-cable television shows, as the French do. But what’s extremely coarse for us, even if all-too common, is just another word for the French.

At my gym in Paris, the internal radio station that pipes in pop music announces with alarming regularity that it plays “fucking good music,” which for me is kind of shocking to hear in a semi-public space. I still haven’t quite gotten used to it. I’m not offended, just a little surprised that it’s part of the aural texture of the workout space. No one pays it any mind except those of us who grew up in English, and there aren’t many of us at this particular gym. For the French, it’s just nonsense words in English: Anglo-Saxon sounds that signify nothing.

What’s offensive, actually, is when one of those in-house radio announcers says the same phrase in a fake Asian accent, which happens often. That translates into insulting insensitivity no matter the language.

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