10 French Swear Words You Don't Know

by on October 27, 2009

Excuse my French. I mean this sincerely rather than euphemistically, because I’m about to hitchhike my way through a landscape of French swear words, that you’re unlikely to know – unless you are French or familiar with French as she is spoken. So anyway, excuse my French, because it’s likely that I’ll get the full meaning or the emphasis wrong with some words on this list.

It’s been a while since I spent time in La Belle France – indeed, too long. Consequently, I have had to rely on a fair amount of research to bolster the knowledge of French profanity that I gleaned, when I lived there for a brief time, over a decade ago.

As regards my use of the word “French”, the Brits use the word as a euphemism for les choses sexuelles in various ways. No doubt it was originally intended to be insulting, but realistically, it simply implies that the French avait une sexualité très épanouie (they are happy in their sexuality) - a reputation they genuinely deserve and don’t care to shake off.

So, to Brits, “excuse my French” means “pardon my foul language”, “French kissing” is the sexual kiss with tongues, “a French letter” is a condom, “French measles” is any kind of venereal disease and “French lessons” is oral sex. Some of this has, of course, crossed the Atlantic. Incidentally, the only equivalent use of “Anglais” in French is in describing menstruation as les Anglais ont débarqué, the English (Redcoats) have landed.

In general, the French use sexual terms as swear words just like Americans and Brits, but as we shall see, the literal translations are misleading as the same words do not have the same force. That is the defining problem with translating swear words. These words tend to be used metaphorically and they acquire their strength of meaning from usage not from literal meaning.  We’ll come face to face with this fact several times as I travel through the French landscape of profanity.

Let’s begin with one of the seven words which George Carlin famously claimed could not be said on US television: piss. Its use would be fine on French television. Indeed I’m not sure it really qualifies as a French swear word.

1. Pisser (also pisse). The French have the noun urine and the verb uriner, which are more proper than pisser and pisse. But the word for urinal is pissoir. There is no other. And the French  happily use expressions like “il pleut comme vache qui pisse” (it’s raining like a pissing cow). The French for dandelion is pis-en-lis (wet the bed) referring to the fact that the dandelion has diuretic properties.

In English there are many expression that use the word piss where the French simply don’t. The French verb for “pissing around” is déconner, which is closer to the British “arsing about.” The French say dégage (clear off) or tire-toi (gather yourself) where we might say “piss off.” The American to be pissed (or pissed off for Brits) is en avoir ras-le-bol (roughly, to have had it up to here).

The British “to be pissed” (drunk) is ivre. The British “pissed as a newt” would be ivre comme un triton and the American “drunk as a skunk” would be ivre comme une moufette. However, neither would make any sense to the French, whereas plein comme un oeuf (as full as an egg) and rond comme une queue de pelle (round – i.e. drunk – like a shovel handle) would.

2. Chier (also merde). Merde is the word that school kids learning French quickly pick up as the natural vulgar expletive. It is slightly more polite than the English “shit”, at least in some contexts. For example, dire merde, literally “to say shit” means to wish someone luck, usually before a performance or an exam. This is often used instead of the less vulgar but less effusive “bonne chance”. This meaning is seriously amplified in the abbreviation MALPT, which stands for Merde A La Puissance Treize! (shit to the thirteenth power). Our equivalent would be “break a leg” (British) or “give them hell” (American).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Hugo Masse June 6, 2012 at 03:53

le chinois, the chinaman has a slanted eye…

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Elissa October 21, 2012 at 23:39

I just want to say that I laughed out loud while I read most of this. I’m French, by-way-of Canada, where most swear words are church related (and I still don’t get that shit). It was nice to get a French by-way-of France lesson. I have expanded my cuss vocabulary. Thank you! :o )

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robinjamespatrickbloor October 29, 2012 at 19:48

I hope you find ample opportunity to use these words….

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