P1090157Before 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.

P1090179
Keeping with my penchant for absolutely random photos when I don’t have something relevant, today you get doors of Toulouse.

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.P1090138Speaking 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.” P1090198In 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.P1090193In 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.P1090182I 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!P1090186Knowing 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.P1090178A 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.P1090176Polite 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.P1090174Americans 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!”P1090164The 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. P1090159This 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…

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22 thoughts on “Big Words in French

  1. Ha, this made me laugh and …. wonder! I think we all, strangers and visitors alike, have fallen in all possible language traps in every language and every country. My dear French spoken (but NOT FRENCH) Hero Husband (or, here he is MM: Mari Magnifique) is often the STAR of linguistic errors but we both learn daily, still, after all this time.
    We also only ever say: Peu importe… (, not n’importe – plus the other 3 versions!)
    Re the mince, and merde – I try to stay with the mince, but HOW GOOD does it feel to say the other word three, four times in a quick succession when one is REALLY very pee…d off. HH HATES swearing but on Saturday he broke his own and my records too with a new and very ‘sophisticated’ chain of choice words because he dashed for his ‘portable’ and ran full speed in the open dishwasher door! And of course it was all my fault – because I opened it to let the hot air out and although he didn’t light any of the three kitchen lights we have, it was well and truly my fault! 😉
    A dear French friend, my former boss at the Alliance Française in England, shocked me often with ‘putain de merde de putain’, but said with a grin and I never took much notice after the first few times. It was just ‘passing the time’ about a minor, very minor, annoyance. When he saw me lifting my eyebrows up to the back of my head, he re-formulated to ‘putaingedeputainge’ in an accent provencal – and we laughed!
    I often ‘lightly’ swear in English, because it’s true, swearing in another language is not SO bad as swearing in one’s mother tongue…. So I do some ‘bloody’ which I would never ever use in German or French, and which gives a fright of great magnitude to one of my English male friends…. (which makes me say it with even more relish). Or ‘sugar’ for s.hi….. Quite like that one.
    Have to include meeeeeercredi to my vocabulary! Didn’t know that one.

    And hey, I also ‘collect’ gr8 doors!!!! We had a magnificent one at our tiny house in Lutry, Switzerland. Must have hundreds of photos of beautiful doors. Paris is full of them. Too many really!

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  2. Fun post, and keep the random image pairing coming – it gives me permission to continue! I’m sure I was a disaster with my shitty French in France, but everyone was kind. Most folks thought I was a Brit, not American. I think that may be a good thing? And a few times, I was told a variation of ‘you’re so bold to ask this way.’ Likely translation: you could be more polite in your asking. As far as favorite swears at the moment, Eff. My sons made up their own curses to avoid their mother’s scorn. Gock and Balllllzack, for example. A friend’s Belgian boyfriend a few years back would say sheet-o-lay…still a favorite. 🙂

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    1. I became keenly aware of the limits of my high school French! The thing is when you get here, you hear people say things and you understand from the context. And then you repeat them without realizing they are impolite! Just like a small child!

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  3. oh boy oh boy do I have a good one. My friend Corrine is a wonderful cook, and she makes the most wonderful and simple dish of mussels with cream and garlic. I just love it. Knowing this, she made it one night (many years ago) in my honor at a party at her house. In front of all the of the guests (most of whom I did not know) I loudly proclaimed “Oh Corrine, Je souviens ta moule!!! C’est délicieux!!” All conversation stopped dead. One of her (new to me) friends gently said, “let me correct a grammatical error for you…Souvenir is a reflexive verb, so you must say Je me souviens” My friend burst out laughing saying…”oh no, no, no, we really need to let Rebecca know what a (singular) moule is in French. I had just told my dear friend that I remembered her (very gros mot for a lady part) and that it was delicious. Well, it was a great ice breaker with all my new friends and we still laugh about it.

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    1. That is hilarious!!! How one little word can change it all, especially in conjunction with slang.
      I had a similar one, in which I was describing how to make tiramisu. I said, “on trempe la biscuit…” you dip the cookie. Everybody erupted in laughter. They had me repeat it several times before explaining that dipping one’s biscuit is slang for having sex.

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  4. During our intensive french course before starting university in Reims, the lecturer asked for words ending in “ot”. I timidly suggested “chiot” (a puppy). He asked me to repeat what I said, so I did so, LOUDLY! Unfortunately, my pronunciation was rubbish and what I actually shouted was “chiotte” – a big word for an outside loo 😦 I think I was labelled a troublemaker from that day onward.

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    1. Hahahahaaaa!! This was the second example I was going to give….I keep pronouncing “chiot” “chiotte” too!! It’s the difference between an open Ò and a closed Ó, and I can never keep them straight. So now, I just call them “puppy” in english.

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  5. Rather late commenting but I enjoyed this post so much; great doors! My youngest son had just started learning French when he came home and told me he’d worked out how to say “bull s**t”.
    ‘Merde de taureau’ of course! I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or shocked! I decided that in fact I was rather proud !!!

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