Before we get started with today’s post, an exciting announcement: Francophile podcaster Oliver Gee of the Earful Tower and his wife, the lovely Lina, are in Carcassonne. The newlyweds are making a heart-shaped tour of France for their honeymoon. Look forward to an episode from Cathar country. Oliver not only does podcasts but has a blog and does videos about life and cool things to do in France. Check them all out!
Back to today’s rambling. When the French say something is a gros mot, they don’t mean it’s a big word. They mean it’s a swear word or a vulgar term. This is something I was taught not by any French class or tutor but by my kid, who, in preschool, suddenly learned to be an arbiter of what was and wasn’t appropriate talk for polite society.
This post is to save you from innocently saying the wrong thing. Or maybe you don’t care, and this post will give you more ammunition for swearing in French.Speaking of not caring, when somebody asks you, “do you want an apple or an orange?” and you think either is equally good, you say, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter.” If your inflection is polite, it sounds perfectly nice—as in, “I’ll take the one that’s most convenient for you to give me.” In French, there are different ways to say it:
Ça m’est égal: it’s the same to me. Most polite.
N’importe: not important (doesn’t matter). Also polite.
Je m’en fiche: I don’t care. Less polite. It means really that you don’t care, and no matter how sweetly you say it, you are implying that the question is below you.
Je m’en fou: I don’t care but in an impolite way. A kid would be in trouble for saying it at school.In my early days in Brussels, having picked up some phrases from the general public without any context or nuances, I once brightly told a shopkeeper “je m’en fou,” intending to convey, “do whatever is easiest for you; I’m good either way.” I got a raised eyebrow (but nothing more), and the shopkeeper undoubtedly took it as proof Americans are rude, when it was proof I was ignorant. It wasn’t until much later that I learned my faux pas.I know some English speakers who say merde as a polite alternative to saying shit, since it just sounds better. Well, the choice of polite French speakers is mince, which means skinny. As in, “Oh, mince, I spilled my wine.” Another alternative is mercredi, or Wednesday, pronounced meeeeerrrrrrrr-credi!Knowing about mince and mercredi, I was quite charmed when I first heard the Carnivore, quite annoyed at something, mutter “singe!” How adorable, I thought, he says “monkey” when he’s mad. Later I learned that it was saint-dieu, not singe. Very gros mot.A favorite gros mot in the south of France is putain, which means prostitute. But it isn’t restricted to swearing; instead folks say it where some English-speakers might use the F-word, which is to say, as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb or just exclamation point (challenge: use putain as a preposition! as an article!). Extreme anger might be expressed with putain de merde. Watch this subtitled standup act by Patrick Bosso, who explains how to speak like a Marseillais (somebody from Marseille). It’s absolutely truffled with gros mots.Polite alternatives include purée (same word in English) and punaise, which are either bedbugs or thumbtacks, depending on the context. However, they only work as exclamations. Other polite exclamations: zut! flûte!
Ça me fait chier and ça m’emmerde mean to annoy intensely, although literally both translate to “that makes me defecate.” Polite alternative: ça m’enerve, or that annoys me. Also ça m’agace, ça me gonfle (that blows me up) and oh, so many others.Americans sometimes say “shut up!” to mean “I don’t doubt you’re telling the truth but what you’re saying is shocking.” The archaic term (from the last century…you know, the 20th century) is “No way!” Example: someone observes, “Beyoncé’s ex-drummer claims she does witchcraft,” and draws the response: “Shut up!”The French don’t do that. Ferme ta guele (sometimes just ta guele), or shut your mouth, but only animals have une guele; humans have une bouche. Very rude.
Tais-toi, or shut up, is neutral, though rather than command an adult (how well do you take being told “be quiet”?), it’s better to say chut, pronounced like “shoot,” which means shush.
Casse-toi, barre-toi and va t’en all are ways to tell someone to “get lost,” though there are far more colorful choices. A milder alternative is laissez-moi tranquil, or leave me be. This just scratches the surface; the vocabulary of French gros mots is vast and rich. In fact, there are entire dictionaries dedicated to the topic, including “Dictionnaire des Gros Mots” by Marc Lemonier and “Gros Mots” by Gilles Guilleron.
Did you ever innocently utter a gros mot out of ignorance? A rite of passage for all learners of a new language…