20 May 2010

Useful Expressions

Une gueule d’atmosphère: Arletty
in Carné’s Hôtel du Nord

Jonathan Wheat, a boyhood friend from Goliad, has launched a new blog in which he recounts his adventures in preparing dishes from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Recently, he wrote that he wished he knew a good French curse word to use when expressing his pleasure at how well something turned out. (He settled for an American word.) I suggested the correct vocabulary (putain, see below), while suddenly aware that many of my own readers may not know the word, or other, related expressions. Because it turns out that many French people will not know what you mean when you curse in English, no matter how loudly you do it.

MERDE (noun, feminine singular) is the one curse word I learned from my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein Ginsburg, who proved to be as practical as she was progressive. Because it’s true: people in life don’t say, “Zut, alors!” nearly so often as they do in textbooks. (Indeed, I get funny looks whenever I do say, “Zut.”) The French equivalent of “shit,” merde is what you exclaim reflexively when something goes wrong; you may also say, “Merde, alors!” or “Oh, merde!” And in a musical context, you’d say, “Merde!” before a performance, as the equivalent of “Break a leg!” (In front of small children, say, “méringue,” instead or, when referring to actual excrement, say, “caca.”)

PUTAIN (noun, feminine singular) is probably the most widely-used curse word in the French language, give or take merde, with which it is often linked: putain de merde. Literally meaning “whore,” it can be used to express surprise, anger, approval, or disapproval in almost any circumstance, from the bedroom to the kitchen, from the highway to the sidewalk. Example: Ce putain de portable ne marche plus! (This damned cell phone doesn’t work anymore!) The abbreviated word pute refers to an actual whore. Not exactly polite, putain isn’t terribly outrageous, either, closer to “damn” than to “shit” or “fuck” — for most people, anyway. (In front of small children, say, “purée.”)

ESPÈCE (noun, feminine singular) is a seemingly harmless word meaning “specie,” “sort” or “kind.” But use it carefully. If you ask the baker for “une espèce de baguette,” she’ll think you’re stupid (because everybody should know what kind of baguette to order) — but she won’t mind. Refer to her as “espèce de boulangère,” however, and she’ll slap you. Not really a dirty word but a potent device for turning almost anything into an insult.

Bite schön? Louis de Funès (top) and Bourvil,
occupying themselves in La grande vadrouille

BITE (noun, feminine singular) refers to the penis, usually belonging either to the speaker or to you, depending on where you are and what you are doing. Less frequently used than the word queue, which is quite a bit stronger, and literally means “tail.” Unlike the American word “dick,” bite is not used to address a stupid or irritating person; however, it does explain why the French are so amused whenever a German says, “Please.”

CON (noun, masculine or feminine singular) is the word you’d use to address that stupid person who was irritating you earlier. Derived from the Latin word for a woman’s sex parts, it’s frequently attached to the adjectives pauvre and/or petit, and it’s adapted in the nouns connard (masculine) and connasse (feminine), especially when you are driving a car. Con can also be employed as an adjective, as in C’était con! (That was stupid). The word is so widely used that I sometimes forget how rude it is; I once shocked Denise Boutrit with it at the dinner table. And I’m not the only one who slips up.

CUL (noun, masculine singular) is another gift from the Romans, meaning “anus” and also used to describe the entire posterior: “ass.” Thus the memorable phrase attributed to the great actress Arletty, explaining her liaison with a German officer during the Occupation: “My heart belongs to France, but mon cul est international.” When spoken, the word is indistinguishable from the letter Q, providing generations of French people with infinite hours of hilarity. And according to mon ancien maître, the late Henri Boutrit, the Nazis tended to pronounce the name of the town Angoulême as “Encul’aime,” roughly meaning: “Love to get fucked in the ass.” Some day I may write a detailed scholarly study on the French use of profanity to relieve the psychological pressures of the Occupation.

Un cul d’atmosphère?
Arletty in Le jour se lève

SACRÉ (adjective) is used as a mild curse when used before a noun to modify it, so that ce sacré chat is the equivalent of the English “that darned cat.” When used after the noun it modifies, sacré simply means “sacred,” and ce chat sacré is probably Ancient Egyptian, rather than knocking over your garbage pail. This turned out to be a godsend, if you will, for the translators of Monty Python: the Holy Grail is le Saint Graal, but the movie title is Sacré Graal!


Certain Anglo-Saxon curse words are pretty widely understood. The French tend to say, “Damned,” and they think that “shit” means “hashish,” but, especially among young people who listen to American rap music, they get “fucking” absolutely right.

Whenever you are in polite society and need to swear, it’s always a good idea to have memorized a selection of the colorful curses of Captain Haddock, from the Tintin comic books. (See illustration below.) “Tonnère de Brest” and “Sapristi!” are his best-known and most-used exclamations (though sapristi isn’t original, being derived from antique French). Quoting Haddock may not make you feel better, but French people will applaud your wit and cultivation.


BAISER is a verb literally meaning “to kiss” but nowadays used almost exclusively to mean “to screw.” Now that you know this, you will never, ever make the mistake of telling a small child, “Va baiser ta grand-mère!”

BORDEL, meaning “brothel” and also used to mean “mess,” it stands alone as an exclamation expressing indignation. Example: Bordel! Tu veux pas me foutre la paix, toi? (Christ, give me a fucking break, will ya!)

CHATTE can refer either to a female cat or to a woman’s anatomy: “pussy,” in other words. Isn’t it lovely when two cultures agree on something?

A truly exquisite piece.

CHIER, a verb meaning “to shit,” is also found in se faire chier, meaning “to be bored or annoyed,” as in Tu me fais chier avec tes histoires à la con (You’re annoying me with your idiotic behavior). Along with PISSER, it’s Rabelais’ favorite verb. A CHIOTTE is a toilet; a CHIOT is, by pure coincidence, a puppy.

CONNERIE, derived from con, means “foolishness” or “fucked-up situation.” It is absolutely vital to remember your orthography here: maçonnerie (masonry) is not ma connerie, and explaining that you’re foreign won’t remove the mason’s fist from your mouth.

COUILLES are testicles, though the word itself is feminine. A CASSE-COUILLES is a ball-buster, and usually feminine, as well — in practice, anyway.

EMMERDEUR, derived from merde, is a profoundly annoying person. Feminine: EMMERDEUSE. Example: Qu’est-ce qu’elle m’emmerde, cette emmerdeuse! (How she annoys me profoundly, that profoundly annoying woman!)

ENCULER, a verb I mentioned above, is used to lend real force to your command. Sometimes it’s not enough simply to tell somebody to go and get fucked (Va te faire foutre); when you say, “Va te faire enculer,” you can be sure you have made your point.

La Nana de Manet se cache les nénés.

FESSES are butt-cheeks, which explains why the French were so restrained in reporting the death of Fess Parker a few weeks ago. A FESSÉE is a spanking.

GARCE is a bitchy woman, while a SALOPE is a slut. Please observe the important distinction between the two.

GOUINE is a feminine noun meaning “lesbian.” Whether it’s pejorative depends on who’s saying it and how much they’ve had to drink.

LOLOS are breasts, as in Elle a des gros lolos, hein? (She’s got big tits, doesn’t she?). NÉNÉS also means “breasts,” as in Cette nana a des beaux nénés! (That chick has great tits.) Such a music to this language!

Par contre, les lolos de l’Olympia se voient bien.
The presence of the chatte on the right is no accident, by the way.

PÉDÉ, from pédéraste, isn’t usually an insult, and gays sometimes use it to describe themselves: Moi, chui pédé (I’m a fag).

TAPETTE used to be a perfectly respectable feminine noun used to describe any small object — from mallets to flyswatters — used to hit something else. Now, however, it’s an extremely pejorative term for a homosexual man, and gays don’t use this word to describe themselves. If anybody calls you this, he is typically drunk, belligerent, and in a dark alley near a bar. You have two options: run away, or punch his lights out.

ZIZI is a childish word used to refer to sex parts. I’m told that it’s used with boys and girls, though I’ve never heard it applied to a girl. It’s rather sweet, though. Naturally, the French couldn’t simply adopt the English word “wee-wee.” Think of the confusion that would cause!

Pierre Cambronne: One of Napoléon’s generals at Waterloo.
According to legend, he rejected a British call to surrender with the response “Merde!” — now celebrated as “Le Mot de Cambronne.”


Robert Keller said...

What a colorful and comprehensive list! It's put me in mind to write an addendum--curse words in Quebecois (Canadian) French, which are at least as colorful as the French French curse words (as my French friends love to tease me about incessantly--calice de tabarnac!) For an interesting article about "joual" (Quebecois slang) and its use in Quebecois theatre, see http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Joual

William V. Madison said...

Merci! I'll take a look at the site; though I fear I'm utterly hopeless in québécois, I may be able to incorporate a couple of phrases in my repertoire. I've noticed that quite a few French people think québécois slang is très cute, and I'll take all the help I can get.

Julia said...

The female counterpart to 'zizi' is 'zigounette'...

Another word for 'lolos/nénés' is 'poumons' (lungs) as in 'elle a des jolis poumons' (look at those lungs!) - this might be uuseful (or not) for addressing opera singers.

William V. Madison said...

Wow, Julia -- I have never heard zigounette! I must be hanging out with the wrong people.

I’ve heard poumons, but I shied away from some of the better metaphorical expressions. My favorite is “Il y a du monde au balcon,” roughly the equivalent of “Man, is she stacked,” but literally, “There’s a crowd on the balcony.” There’s a nice gesture to accompany the phrase, too.

Jonathan said...

Thank you for this wonderful and comprehensive list! I really love the phrase, "putain de merde!" and shall use it in my kitchen, though sparingly, but with fervor.

Also, how did the word for "testicles" end up feminine?

Julia said...

Perhaps couilles is feminine because they are delicacies (in some countries)

William V. Madison said...

Jonathan -- You can consider putain de merde a potent spice: use too much of it, and you’ll spoil the dish. However, I know very few French chefs who exercise restraint when it comes to this particular seasoning.

As for the gender of couilles, I can’t be sure how it happened, since I wasn’t around at the time; but I suspect the process was very much like that whereby vagin wound up masculine. (Testicules, the scientific and comparatively polite word, is masculine, BTW.)

William V. Madison said...

Lest I forget, another excellent euphemism for putain, when in the presence of small children, is punaise, which means “stink bug.”

Anonymous said...

Interesting how these expressions have stood the test time. Milder slang, on the other hand, gets dated pretty quickly. I never hear anyone saying "chouette" anymore, while "mince" has become a verbal tic.


William V. Madison said...

Chouette was already a bit dated 50 years ago, I thought, when René Goscinny made it part of the standard speech of his Petit Nicolas — the idea being to place the characters somewhere just outside real time and real space. (As in the way Goscinny never identifies the town in which Nicolas lives.) I use the word fairly often, albeit somewhat ironically.

I, too, hear mince very, very, very frequently.

GirlFrom Texas said...

My grandmother was from a small town in Louisiana, and while I never heard her speak French or any sort of Cajun patois, many words that came to me, garbled, from my mother in baby talk, were clearly derived from my grandmother's French speaking heritage. She called African Americans (pronunciation is key here) "nigres" in the 50's and early 60's( not the "n" word) and little girls breasts "ninners". I never understood why, but now I think there is a much richer cultural heritage that was somehow lost. The question I have, is, why?

John Yohalem said...

GFT - I'm more upset when a perfectly decent word, such as "niggard" a few years ago, must be discarded from the language because it sounds vaguely like a forbidden word and some very irrational and thin-skinned person has taken offense. (And, IIRC, cost the user his job.)

I, too, would love to hear some Quebeçois curses, since (in my experience) most of them are used to describe the French.

I seem to recall Mme Gaskin in 10th Grade telling us (without explanation) to use embrasser for "to kiss" rather than "baiser," which she permitted for a noun.

soyons-suave said...

So accurate and really funny. But, if I may : eventhough "chiotte" means "toilets" and can sometimes be used for an old motorcycle like in "ma chiotte est encore en panne, putain de merde", I have never, in my whole life, heard it used for a female puppy. Otherwise, I would have "fait pipi dans ma culotte" right away. But strangely (or not), CHIOT means puppy, male or female. Allez comprendre...
I have to thank Justine C. : your blog is pure delight.

soyons-suave said...

Oh, and by the way, to hear "chouette" you have to go to Belgium where it's still very popular

William V. Madison said...

Merci, Soyons-suave. You were the first reader to question the use of chiotte to describe a female puppy. I had begun to suppose it was a Boutrilogisme, or a word particular to the Boutrit family and ther friends.

However, upon consultation, Bernard denies ever using the term to describe anything but a toilet, insists that I never heard anyone else do so, and despite the fact that he vetted this article before publication, he washes his hands of the whole matter.

So I've stricken that line from the text. Merde, alors.