Monday, January 2, 2012

Putain de merde!: Or Cultural Analysis of French Curse Words

Hey all! Sorry I haven’t posted recently—there was the run-up to the holidays and then my family came to visit me! I have a lot of neat pictures to upload as well, but I figured the best way to start off the New Year was with a foul mouth.

As almost anyone who has taken a foreign language knows, there’s one thing most students are eager to learn: how to swear. As stupid as that may sound, it’s also very interesting to look at what different cultures consider to be heinously offensive and how that reflects on national complexes. (For example, I have a fellow assistant here who has a Dutch boyfriend. Apparently, the vast majority of curses in Dutch have to do with diseases—one particularly bad one is some type of esophageal cancer. I’m not sure what that says about the Dutch.)

So, for your edification and your foul-mouthed glee, I have compiled a list of all the curse words I have heard in French. I am sure there are others, but these are only ones I have heard used by actual French people. They vary in strength and I will excuse myself in advance for any mistranslations.

Baiser (v): There is a noun that means “a kiss” that is spelled the same. In fact, this verb used to mean “kiss.” It now means “fuck” but in the literally sense, without the same…uh…utilitarianism the verb enjoys in American English. The only time I’ve heard this used is in the sense of being “screwed over” or cheated. It’s not too strong, because it can be used among friends without causing offense. For example, upon discovering that I had made more cookies than he thought, one of my friends told me: “Mais tu nous as bien baisé là”- you screwed us really well there.

Con, connard, connasse (all nouns): Not particularly strong, as it can be said oneself. It literally means “cock” but the better idiomatic translation is “ass.” Con can be used for either gender, though I have seen “conne” written to mean a woman. However, connard is always a man and connasse is always a woman. I’m sort of intrigued by the fact that, as far as I know, there is no French swear word that literally refers to female genitalia, only to male.

Enculer, enculé (verb, noun): The verb literally means to be sodomized. The noun means someone who has been sodomized. This is quite strong and probably translates best as “motherfucker” or possibly, more literally “faggot.”

Foutre (verb): Fuck. This is not often used, but when it is, it’s usually in the connotation of “va te faire foutre”—“go fuck yourself” or “Je m’en fous”—I don’t give a fuck.

Merde: Shit. This one roughly translates, even down to the ability to call someone “a piece of shit”- “espèce de merde.” It is apparently used in the North of France like “putain” is used in the South.

Niquer: fuck, once again in the literal sense. It’s stronger than baiser and the only time I have heard it used is in hip-hop videos that my friends were making fun of. It can be used in the phrase “Nique ta mère”—or fuck your mom.

Pute, putain (both nouns): This literally means whore. As far as “pute,” it’s used the same way we would use the English word ‘whore’ or ‘slut’—it’s just stronger. Putain also means whore and you could use it to refer to someone. However, especially in the South of France, putain also fills the same role as “fuck” in the English language. It is used as a catch-all curse when someone’s not happy. Drop a pot on your foot: “Putain!” Arrive at a store just after it closes: “Mais putain…” and so on and so forth. It can be intensified by combining it with other swear words: “putain de merde,” “putain de con,” etc.

Salaud (noun)- I have no idea what this word literally means, but I’m hypothesizing it comes from the verb ‘salir,’ or to make dirty. It roughly means bastard (although there is a French word bâtard which literally means someone born outside of marriage. That, however, I have never heard used as an insult.) As far as I can tell, salaud is always used to refer to a man.

Salope, salopard (nouns): Apparently, this comes from the verb ‘saloper,’ or to botch something. I don’t know how offensive the verb is, so I wouldn’t use it. Salope is exclusively feminine and has a sexual connotation, so the best English equivalent would probably be “bitch” or “cunt.” Salopard can be used for a man and thus (of course) doesn’t have the sexual connotation. Draw what conclusions about Western culture and the treatment of female sexuality you will.

Ta gueule: This is a shortened version of the phrase “Ferme ta gueule” and I include it only because this is a pet peeve of mine when confronted with French teachers of English. They teach their students that “Ferme ta gueule” means “shut up” when it is actually significantly stronger. A better equivalent might be “shut the hell up” or “shut the fuck up.” Thus, when I lose my temper and tell me students to shut up, they think I’m swearing at them. And of course, because they’re clearly five years old but somehow in middle school, they start off with “ooo, teacher said a dirty word.” Argh.

So, after that lovely glossary of French swear words and other vulgarities, I do have a couple conclusions. The French language seems to suffer from the same problems of misogyny and homophobia that English does, with swear words specifically targeting each group. Despite that, it’s interesting that cock is a swear word with no female equivalent and that they have so many different ways to say “fuck.”

I also find it interesting that there are, to my knowledge, no curse words related to Christianity, whereas English has “hell” and “damn.” True, there is the very old-fashioned “sacré bleu” related to the blue veil of the Virgin Mary, but it is extremely old-fashioned and I have never heard anyone actually say that. I wonder why this is--- possibly because of the very early dechristianisation in France, a country which prides itself on its policy of secularism?


  1. Does anyone actually use the word zut?

  2. Alyssa,
    Sometime I should tell you the story of when I used "baiser" as a verb in a simultaneous translation for an international professional group (without, of course, knowing it's meaning). Then again, I'm sure you can imagine the reactions among the French speaking attendants.
    Pierre Ravacon