Swearing in French and Degrees of Vulgarity

Swearing is another cultural concept that is difficult to master when learning a language. Exact translations among swear words are hard to come by since a lot of the meaning depends on the situation and tone of voice. What is considered vulgar in one language may not be in another. In French, merde is usually translated as sh*t in English, but it can also mean good luck or break a leg when talking to actors, and kids don’t get in trouble for saying it. American kids would be grounded or get detention for saying the s word. So should we really say that it means sh*t in English? It certainly doesn’t have the same impact in both languages.

In fact, swearing in French is much less obscene than in English – which is perhaps more detrimental to French students learning English than vice versa. There are many more degrees of vulgarity to English swear words and when we should use them or not, which is something that was unknown to my French students.  Since censorship on television doesn’t exist in France, the idea that certain words are bleeped out on American TV is a bit odd to them. Of course, censorship of nudity is also odd to them – Janet Jackson fiasco, anyone? – but that’s another story!

no cartoon swearing

Photo credit: AdsitAdventures

I tend to classify swear words in English by the situations where they would be censored or not and if children will get in trouble for saying them (but again, that can depend on the school and parents.) In my dialect of English, this is how I would describe the following phrases expressing indifference:

  • It doesn’t matter. – most neutral phrase, can be used in any situation
  • I don’t care. – still not swearing, but can be considered rude
  • I don’t give a damn. – cannot be said by children or teenagers at school; but allowed on network TV
  • I don’t give a sh*t. – cannot be said at school or on network TV; but allowed in movies that teenagers can watch
  • I don’t give a f*ck. – can only be said in movies or cable TV geared towards adults (17 and older)

Now in French, it is difficult to give exact translations for each phrase so let’s group them according to vulgarity:

  • Neutral: N’importe lequel. / Peu importe. / Ça m’est égal.
  • Informal: Je m’en fiche. / Je m’en balance. / Je m’en moque.
  • Vulgar: Je m’en fous.
  • Most vulgar: J’en ai rien à foutre.

There can be some overlap with these phrases as well, depending on who you ask. David says Je m’en fiche and Je m’en fous are essentially the same thing to him and he doesn’t feel that one is particularly more vulgar than the other. And for less vulgar synonyms that replace foutre, such as J’en ai rien à cirer, where should we place them in the spectrum? Are they still considered vulgar or merely informal?

The verbe foutre itself presents the same problem as merde. Originally it had a very vulgar meaning, but nowadays it is used so often and with various banal meanings, that it is no longer as shock-worthy as it used to be. Can you imagine if English f*ck could also be used informally – without getting in trouble for saying it or being censored on TV – to mean to put/stick/shove/throw something or to do something?

Où t’as foutu les clés ? Where did you put the keys?

Qu’est-ce qu’il fout là-bas ? What is he doing over there?

More examples of foutre and the adjective foutu and their approximate English translations:

  • foutre en l’air – to ruin; to beat up; to kill
  • foutre (de la gueule) de quelqu’un – to make fun of someone
  • foutre dedans – to blow it; to stick one’s foot in it
  • foutre la trouille à quelqu’un – to scare the crap out of someone
  • se foutre par terre – to fall flat on one’s face; to embarrass oneself
  • foutre la paix à quelqu’un – to leave someone alone
  • foutre une baffe à quelqu’un – to slap someone in the face
  • foutu de faire quelque chose – to be capable of doing something
  • argent foutu – money down the drain
  • bien foutu – well built (muscular body)
  • café boullu, café foutu – boiled coffee, ruined coffee
  • foutu – screwed; finished; done for
  • mal foutu – sick
  • je-m’en-foutisme – apathy
I will be updating the Informal French & Slang page soon to include more examples of swear words and in which situations they can be used. When in doubt, it’s best to try to use the most neutral expressions as possible so you don’t offend anyone. And if you do say something wrong, you can always play the non-native speaker card. I was once told by a two year old that I shoudn’t say dégueulasse because it was a gros mot. I thought it was just a slang form of dégoûtant (disgusting) and it didn’t seem that vulgar to me. But since I didn’t speak French that well back then due to a lack of exposure to authentic language and culture, how would I have known?
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  • http://www.destinationeurope.com.au Andrea

    One of the things I love about France is that it’s perfectly acceptable to swear and most swear words aren’t really offensive unlike in English where I could say some really nasty things, lol.

    I do usually fail at swearing though. Like if someone is annoying me and I want to say vas te faire foutre, it takes me forever to get it out and my pronunciation sucks so I sound stupid. It’s so much easier to say f*ck off but unfortunately that doesn’t have the same effect. :)

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Sometimes I resort to English swear words too, when I get really mad and can’t think of something equally bad to say in French. Nothing really seems as offensive as the good ol’ f-bomb!

  • MilkJam

    I always thought the same thing about dégueulasse – that it was just slang like “gross”. Turns out (after a first dinner with the in-laws) that a good translation is “fucking disgusting”… Trying to retrain my brain not to use it isn’t easy!

  • Ali

    it’s the context that matters. I would never use “dégueulasse” at a bourgeois dinner table, but it is perfectly acceptable in the conversations of my students…

  • kurllff

    “In French, merde is usually translated as sh*t in English, but it can also mean good luck or break a leg when talking to actors, and kids don’t get in trouble for saying it”

    Absolutely wrong. “Merde” never means good luck in any form or shape. This is a misconception spread by some comedians several years ago.
    Don’t use it for that! Simply say “bonne chance” instead. Just be warned that some people do use it the wrong way, so you can correct them now. :)

  • http://twitter.com/eyelean Eileen

    Good post Jennie! I also find it risky that my students have the impression that putain=f*ck in terms of vulgarity. I think f*ck is generally much worse and that putain is not really much worse than damn in English.

    I made the same mistake with dégueulasse my first year in France. I had also thrown in “c’était le bordel” in the same sentence. Oops.

  • http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com/ cathy

    i remember my entire class of kids gasping in shock when i used “dégueulasse” so now i’m careful around the kiddos with it!

    thanks for the degrees of “i dont care” – sometimes i still get those mixed up.

    another one i had problems with at first was “let’s go” there’s on y va, je m’en vais, je me casse (accidentally used that one with colleagues), etc….

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    Ooh, yeah there are so many verbs for leave or go! I tend to stick with j’y vais for I’m going/I’m heading out.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    I agree regarding putain. It’s so common now that it can mean anything from damn it to f*ck and my students always thought they should translate it as f*ck. Well, that and they loved saying the f word all the time anyway… ah boys.

    Glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know degueulasse was grossier!

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    It certainly does mean good luck. People use it all the time and REAL usage is what is most important in learning a language – not what the prescriptivists claim to be correct or not.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    When I first heard it, I thought it was a normal slang word or even a cute little kid word. It was very strange to find out that it was grossier after all! Learning what context to use certain words in can be so difficult.

  • http://www.ielanguages.com Jennie Wagner

    I have a hard time not using it too. I used it all the time before little Antonin said “tu as dit un gros mot !” and now I’m just lucky to not be around kids all that often. lol

  • Catherine

    I also like how you can say “punaise” or “purée” when you mean “putain”. Very informative article!

  • Anna

    Great article! It’s exactly the thing I was looking for when I was watching How I Met Your Mother in French and wondering if some of the words they chose would really be the equivalents of what would air on TV here. What’s frustrating/weird about French swearing is how a single word can have very different degrees of severity depending how you use it.

    I have a French slang book that puts exclamation points next to words that would be offensive (with !!! being the most offensive) and I had offered “ta gueule” for shut up which didn’t have any ! after it and my friend was shocked saying someone would punch me in the face if I said that.

  • http://ma-nouvelle-vie-en-france.blogspot.com La Petite Blogueuse

    I notice that Homer says “Punaise” a lot in the French version of the Simpsons!

  • Zhu

    I was surprised the networks actually bleeped words when I first came to North America. Sounds a bit hypocrite and I don’t think it changes anything.

    Swearing in a foreign language takes practice, especially when you want to avoid offending people!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Fascinating, I’m going to have to do a similar article on swearing in Spanish at some point and I actually kind of dread it because it is so difficult to explain it properly.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Guest2323

    Not ‘Punaise’, but ‘Pinaise’ XD. Great article !

  • Larrysolomons

    When President Sarkosy called a French farmer a “Pouv Con” (Spelling is wrong..can’t remember exactly, there was much condemnation. My French neighbour (at the time) said it was the equivalent of calling someone a “cunt”.

  • Paul_porche

    I am french, i can say that the expression “Je te dis merde” in some situations (exams for exemple) means “good luck to you”. The writer was totally right.

  • http://www.gwannelsandiego.blogspot.com Gwan

    Me too with dégueu, I’ve actually had a couple of French adults recently apologise to me for saying it in front of me (not to/about me) which was a bit of a surprise. (For starters, I would have no problems saying effing disgusting to them ha ha!)
    Also – rien à branler, worse than rien à foutre? Or about the same?

  • http://twitter.com/Auremims Aurélie Duclos

    Great post ! As a native French speaker it’s great to have an outsider’s point of view :) One thing I’ve noticed though, is that it’s always kind of strange to hear a foreigner swear in French – it usually doesn’t sound “right”. Whether because it’s not used appropriately or because it contrasts to the usually formal French spoken by foreigner, I don’t know. Any idea ? ;)

  • JM MUYL

    Actually before an exam, “bonne chance” is supposed to bring you bad luck (“porter la poisse”). So you have to say “merde”, and the person must answer nothing at all, and especially not “merci”, which is also supposed to bring him/her bad luck.
    Confusing, isn’t it ?

  • http://patamodeler2.wordpress.com patricia

    First news! “Dégueulasse” definitely means “gross” to me, but I am from Quebec. Larousse says it’s very familiar; Antidote, familiar (and no specific note for usage in France); my Petit Robert refuses to work today; and my French boyfriend agrees on what you wrote, Jennie. Thanks for the info, I’ll try not to use it here in France.

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  • Kt

    So if swearing isn’t offensive in France, what’s the point of it? And how is fury expressed then, more by content?

  • Molocoy

    Le foutre is simply an old word for ‘sperm’. Not that vulgar!

  • http://www.frenchconnections.co.uk Villas in provence

    Great post here! It’s really interesting how different cultures adapt certain words, and over time how they can change to become less/or more appropriate to use.

  • http://twitter.com/HalfCrazyGirl HCG

    nice post. i’d like drop in a few comments here…

    +++ it is true that the Janet Jackson “nipplegate” was perceived as a joke in France. ppl didn’t quite understand all the fuss around it. of course, when you know a little bit about American people conservatism then it makes sense. the Superbowl was transmitted live on France2 and got a decent rating despite the late hour. but contrarily to what happened in the States the next day, French people were joking around like “why didnt she show the other one?” and other stuff like that… it is true that american conservatism or more puritanism is sometimes a little ridiculous to me. like we don’t know the word bip… my worst experience was the film about the life of “Weird Al” Yankovic. they would bip every 10 seconds and even put black squares on every piece of skin…

    +++ French is a very rich language and you can swear in many ways.you forgot “j’en ai rien à battre” that equls “j’en ai rien à cirer” maybe a little bit vulgar and “j’en ai rien à branler” that i believe to be more vulgar than “j’en ai rien à foutre”. i can say “j’en ai rien à foutre” and hear it from my friends easily but in my life i never ever said or heard from people around me “j’en ai rien à branler”.

    +++ “dégueulasse” is not that much of a “gros mot”. it’s very familliar but when we are kids, our parents teach us not to use this kind of words….but growing up it’s ok. i would even say “dégueu” rather than “dégueulasse”.

    +++ why “merde” to wish luck? contrarily to some comment i’ve read, YES we do use “merde” to wish luck. the origins come from i believe 17th or 18th century maybe earlier when people were using horse tracted carriages. when they would go to the theatre, the carriages would stop at the entrance so that people could enter the theatre. if there were a big attendance, then the horses would leave a lot of “merde” in front of the theatre. if no one would show up then there would hardly have any “merde” in front of the theatre. that is why we wish people “merde”!!! it’s a synonym of success! :D

    +++ i think you’ll have a lot to say about french slang, it’s very varied and imaginative. i believe french to be the language to have the higher number of words to define “money” just like Inuit have the most words to define “snow”. you plenty to talk about, the old slang, the new slang, le “verlan”, le “franglais”… yep! that’s a lot. good luck

  • http://twitter.com/HalfCrazyGirl HCG

    “je me casse” is VERY vulgar. i never use it. my grandfather likes to use it and when he does in front of me, i always scold him. lol

  • http://twitter.com/HalfCrazyGirl HCG

    i think you mention the event when a kid tried to steal Sarkozy’s wallet. Sarkozy called him “petit con”. the boy”s father was actually there and he slapped is son for doing that.

  • http://twitter.com/HalfCrazyGirl HCG

    po

  • http://twitter.com/HalfCrazyGirl HCG

    i think it’s only natural. i live in Canada and when i’m really pissed i yell “putain de merde de… !” of course, everybody turns around and think or say “that’s a french girl” but i feel so much better afterwards… just have to let it all out! :D

  • http://cultursation.blogspot.com/ Margaret

    I have to disagree with kurllff and agree with Jennie. I was just wished “Grosse merde!” by a French person before doing an oral French exam, so that one’s current. ;-)

    It seems to have “worked”, too – I passed! :-D

    Oh yes, and I was warned “DON’T say ‘merci’!!”…ha ha, those funny superstitions. I get a kick out of flagrantly ignoring them…hee hee. ;-)

  • connor moore

    nice blog and some very interesting articles

  • http://www.spanishhelpnow.com Cynthia

    I just stumbled this (I love StumbleUpon). What a great article. I barely know French, but I liked your degrees of vulgarity. I need to consider this for Spanish, my second language. As I rarely cuss in either English and Spanish, this should be a fun exercise.

  • ferdibarda

    Very funny the “dégueulass” thing, I totally understand why it can be confusing for a foreigner. About “merde”, kids do get in trouble for saying it (teenagers probably not though). In fact, the more I think about it the more I realize in French you rarely get in trouble for saying some word, but more for the way you say it and the context. “Merde” is a good example, another one is “gueule”, which can be very vulgar if you say “ta gueule”, informal if you say “il se fout de ma gueule”, and totally neutral if you say “la gueule du loup” or “amuse-gueule”.
    One last thing, about the Janet Jackson incident, a year later at 2005 Cannes film festival, French actress Sophie Marceau accidently showed some breast. Of course, it didn’t cause any scandal, but the images were widely spread (she’s a beautiful woman). You can see it on YouTube, it’s actually quite funny.

  • TCK

    Hey Jennie,
    Love the article! I love the light you shed on French language and culture!!! I would just add that “être mal foutu” is more like ugly, or literally “to be badly made”. It’s also “se foutre de qqn”, you need the reflexive.

  • Sirknux

    Pauvre con is the correct spelling, literally it means “poor cunt,” in French but the word cunt isn’t as strong in French as it is in English just like fat and ugly are non-vulgar words that can be verbally injurious to somebody.

  • http://lovinglanguage.wordpress.com/ RichardLanguage

    There’s another layer of French swearing that you didn’t talk about. What about the “branler” family of words, especially when animals are involved?

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  • Ginny

    “Can you imagine if English f*ck could also be used informally – without getting in trouble for saying it or being censored on TV” => this happened to “ass”: “bad-ass”, “hard-ass”, “smart ass”, etc. are considered a lot less rude than just “ass” on its own.

    Very interesting post. :)

  • Ginny

    Muuuuuch worse, since “branler” means “jerk odd”!

  • grace rosy situngkir

    Salut, Jennie!
    It’s a great post! Do you have any source about the function of the swearing?

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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