Swearing and Degrees of Vulgarity

Another in a series of posts drawn from ielanguages.com, an incredible, free on-line French language resource created by Jennie Wagner, an English lecturer at the Université de Savoie in Chambéry, France. Jennie has graciously allowed Posted in Paris to repost several of her tutorials.

by Jennie Wagner

Swearing is a 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!

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. My French friend 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

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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2 responses to “Swearing and Degrees of Vulgarity

  1. I believe it should be “n’importe quoi” instead of “n’importe lequel.”

  2. Merci pour ce petit cours. je vais en parler à mes enfants qui disent très facilement sh*t, trop facilement si je vous lis bien.
    Par contre pour moi “foutre” est très vulgaire. C’est le nom ancien du sperme, et chez nous il est interdit de le dire. Mes enfants qui ont 20 et 21 ans ne le disent pas. Je ne les entends pas le dire au moins. Mais je peux dire “fiche”. Non franchement il y a une grosse différence entre foutre et fiche. Ma vieille maman, 89 ans et de vieille famille française dit ” fiche” mais jamais l’autre version.
    Et “rien à cirer” est très familier, mais à mon avis, il s’agit de dire, qu’on ne va pas cirer ses pompes, c’est à dire se mettre en quatre pour cette personne ou ce problème, ce n’est pas vulgaire à proprement parler. L’autre forme très vulgaire, c’est ” rien à ch*er”, les étoiles c’est plus élégant. Interdit chez nous aussi.
    J’ai eu du plaisir à réfléchir à tout ça grâce à vous, merci beaucoup. Isabelle

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