Tag Archives: French

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?

French Conversation: A Step Towards Fluency

by A. Letkemann

You take French classes, faithfully do your homework, and try to use your new language skills as much as possible, yet you feel that you’re not progressing to fluency as fast as you would like. Perhaps joining one of the many conversations groups around town could be just the ticket to accelerating your progress while enabling you to meet new people and became acquainted with new Parisian places to boot. Below is a partial list of available groups around Paris for your consideration.

Bienvenue en France

For over 30 years, Bienvenue en France, with the support of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been welcoming spouses of foreign diplomats from every country to help make their stay in France as successful and pleasant as possible. The association helps them to get to know France and its people by encouraging meetings with French families and by presenting the rich diversity of France.  In 2009, the fee was 50€ per year for a two hour class, once a week.  Note: These groups are only available to individuals possessing a diplomatic card.
Web: www.bienvenueenfrance.org

Cercle International de l’ARC

Established in 1957 to give foreigners access to French conversation partners, the Cercle International de l’ARC is a volunteer association that seeks to provide an open door to French culture and language. Their slogan is “une porte d’amitié ouverte aux ètrangers.” Additionally, the group organizes evening presentations, weekend walking tours, and short day-trips from Paris.  Once the 10€ annual fee is paid, students are welcome to join any of five or six conversation tables where French native speakers act as moderators. Mostly retired Parisians, the moderators will correct if requested, explain expressions, and encourage conversation. Students of all ages, nationalities, and language levels are welcome. The Cercle is open Monday through Friday from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. Students are free to stay from 20 minutes to 3 hours. There are no fixed appointments.
Web: http://arc-cercle-international.over-blog.com/pages/LARC_AU_SERVICE_DE_LA_FRANCOPHONIE-778100.html


Founded in 1996, this center offers French conversation in a lovely center in the 9th arrondissement. Guided and free-form conversation options are offered in two-hour sessions that can be attended one to three times a week. A one-month subscription is required and ranges in price from 80€ for a month of one weekly guided conversation sessions to 30€ for a month of once weekly free-form conversation sessions. There is a 30€ registration fee and the center offers one free trial conversation session.
Web: www.konversando.fr/index.html

LetThemTalk Café Conversation

This option is not for beginners. This group meets at different, central Paris restaurants each Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 pm. Conversations are held in French only. Participation costs 15€ if paid on-site, 12.50 in advance or you can buy a carnet of five tickets good for three months cost 50€.  Reservations are required.
Web: www.letthemtalk.com/paris-cafe-conversation-french.html


This is one of the oldest, most established conversation groups in Paris, celebrating 12 years of bringing together bilingual speakers. Founders Adrian Leeds and Elisabeth Crochard offer three 45-minute conversation sessions per week in the 1st and 6th arrondissements with convenient evening and weekend hours. The first session is free and one can take sessions a la carte at 10€ each or sign up for 10 or 20 session subscriptions at a per session discount.
Web: http://www.parlerparlor.com/

Teatime = Talktime

Michael and Véronique host a conversation group in their own home in the 5th arrondissement each Saturday evening from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. with snacks, tea, soft drinks and free-form conversation. The first half of the evening is conversation in any language (usually English), then Michael signals when everyone has to start speaking only French. 10€ donation requested. Call to reserve a spot and get directions.
Contact by phone at 01 43 25 86 55 or e-mail at michaelttt@noos.fr.

TEMPO Tea Time

This French/English conversation group meets every Tuesday night from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Practice your French and English with native speakers in a relaxed atmosphere. Spend half the night speaking English and half speaking French. Discussion topics and games help liven up a night of conversation! Hosted by TEMPOtime American Accent and l’Oisive Thé, this group meet at the Sputnik Sports Bar (14, rue de la Butte aux Cailles, Paris 75013) now, but the location changes periodically.
Web: www.tempotime.wordpress.com

WICE French-English Conversation Groups

WICE conversation groups are free and open to members only, but with an annual membership fee of 50€, this may just be the best deal in town for improving your language skills. WICE has conducted conversation groups for more than 10 years. Two 90-minute sessions are held each week in small groups of five to six people who converse for 45 minutes in each language. Groups meet in the 15th arrondissement on Tuesdays and Fridays from 4:30 to 6:00 pm each day.
Web: wiceconversation.blogspot.com