I like cursing. I do curse a lot, and one of my pleasures is mixing sophisticated works with very rude, primitive, ones. I know that I have to careful with that in this US, where you cannot say “fuck” on TV without having a ***beep*** or writing like … “the F word” or “Fluke” or “F***” – which I find funny, because, well, I don’t think anybody dies over cursing. Much less than with guns (or knives, lately), but it’s difficult to *** a bullet, much more than a word. Anyways. My wife keeps telling me, you curse too much, in France it’s OK but in the US you have to be careful. So I’m trying to be careful, even if some of my Facebook friends are inventing new insults, like “fucktard”, that I like very much, than you.
This Sunday I met one of my wife’s tennis partners, and I’m trying to be polite, well groomed if you will, I don’t want to embarrass my wife, it happens often enough after excess alcohol, but she starts the conversation with a “Oh sorry, I swear a lot, I hope it does not bother you” “ Well, it doesn’t, does it ? I’m like you ». Finding a swearing mate in the middle of Midwest (pun intended) is kind of cool. So we chat a little bit about swearing and other very important topics, and then she’s like “You know the worst swearing we did in the tennis team?” – well, no – and then – “Our coach told us : let’s kill those cunts !”
This sounds like total blasphemy, and we wait in awe for the skies to open and an old bearded guy to kill us with some type of magic want, but nothing really happens, except that it’s fucking hot and I know my Sunday running will not be exactly a piece of cake, but here we go.
This triggered a train of swearing thoughts, and I’m writing the post in English because it’s more fun and also because it’s interesting to analyze the differences between French cursing and American cursing. And afterthoughts include insulting, because it’s the same semantics, and at the moment insults, at least in the political American realm, are flying all over. Well, in only one direction, but still.
So what’s up with swearing? Everybody swears, but we kind of feel ashamed about it, as it is often a signature of loss of control, a burst of anger, the evidence that we don’t manage our feelings as much as we’d like to.
The first semantic interesting thing is that swearing has two very different meanings : I swear – I guarantee I’m telling the truth, or that I will do something, I promise – it’ s a very strong social commitment (you can swear to yourself, but the accountability is not exactly the same). In court “ Do you swear that you are going to tell the truth, all the truth, nothing but the truth ?” – “yes, Your Honor I swear”. And then swearing is also your language out of control – well, out of control but not random as it complies with very specific rules. It’s interesting that it’s the same verb for both, and it’s exactly the same in French “je jure de dire la vérité, toute la vérité” “Je jure que j’arriverai à faire ceci ou cela” etc.
Swearing can mean being very solemn, making promises, speak under oath or using obscene words. Interesting.
The semantic structure of the “obscene swearing” is always the same. It implies a mixture of sacred stuff (god, the saints, holy relics, the king, your mother, …), sex related stuff, hidden organs (penis, vagina, anus), and body fluids (saliva, semen, feces). You can combine this any way you can imagine and it will always work. It would be a cool app to develop (more fun than the apps that generate vision and mission for corporations :-))
It can go from very simple structures “Holy shit !” “Tabarnac” (tabernacle, place for relics- in Canadian) to more complex forms “putain de dieu de bordel de merde” (god, shit, whore, and brothel).
One could argue that it’s a way to intercede with our imaginary friend in the skies, and make sure than in reality, at that moment where we are pissed or lost he is not looking. Because if he was, he would probably be quite upset. So maybe to feel that we are actually in control, even if at this very moment we are not. Why are feces part of it, I really don’t know –except that it’s dirty and disgusting and linking the divine and the leftovers of our bodies is as close as a mental short-circuit as can be!
Now let’s move to insults. Insulting is swearing at others, in some way, and it’s the same language. One of the more common insults is using sexual organs to tag someone. The most common in French is “con” middle-age slang for “female sex”. Kids (like me) start using at a very young age without even knowing where it comes from. Actually, the root is “cunnus” a latin word. Wikipedia does not mention that “con” and “cunt” share the same origin … but regardless, the metaphor works the same way. The female sex becomes an insult and a way to swear.
If feminists start screaming that this is a sign of patriarchal culture which despises women, well, in the Middle-East maybe but in Europe it is equally insulting to call someone a penis. “Dickhead” or “tête de noeud” (don’t ask me why “knot” is slang in French for “penis”, I don’t have a clue) are very common “celui là, c’est vraiment une tête de noeud! » and in American, just “He’s such a dick” is good enough..
Another very classic part of the body is the anus, of course. Asshole and trou du cul (even written “trouduc” in French).
When we get to body fluids … feces are the all-time favorite. “fait chier, merde” is a classic, and it’s not that easy to translate. “this is absolute crap” is something you hear often but “this makes me crap”, not really. A proper translation would be “it sucks” – which does not refer to expelling fluids, quite the opposite. There is obviously a sexual component in “this sucks” as it can be “this sucks balls” but not that much. If French you can involve urine (je te pisse à la raie – I’m peeing in your ass), feces (va chier) or saliva (je te crache à la gueule – I spit in your face). Not sure all those subtleties exist in English – although spitting (the act) seems to be an universal “fuck you” message. Probably memories of a time where you could get a very bad disease just with getting someone else’s saliva in your face.
You can find references to semen in “this guy is a jerk” or “scumbag”, not so much in French where the closest would be “c’est un branleur” (se branler = to jerk off), but the connotation is not so negative. It is actually often used in a friendly way (“ah putain toi t’es vraiment un gros branleur”).
At some point sexual intercourse irrupts into the semantic field. In the US “fuck” is very widely used, whereas in France (a country of gay leftists?), sodomy is more present. “Fuck you” can be translated by “Va te faire foutre” (foutre = semen) but more frequently French people would say “Va te faire enculer”. Enculer, although a visual and brutal word, is widely used in business language. I cannot count how many times I heard (or said …) “Quelle bande d’enculés”, or “Ah on les a bien enculés sur ce coup” (we really screwed them on that deal) or even, in recent tense work conversations “si je voulais t’enculer, tu t’en rendrai compte tout de suite”. (If I really wanted to fuck you, you would know it immediately)
I would interpret this as “domination” semantics, with a flavor of anti-gay, typical of “us and them” behavior. Scapegoat groups are common, and we could interpret this as “gay men are not real men” hence the insult. That can be extended to any group felt as different: nations or religions. Still, the angry male making a finger does not mean that he is gay but that he can dominate his opponent, by symbolically raping him, basically..
I still don’t have the explanation of the popularity of “fuck” in the US language. The equivalent in French would be “putain” (whore) which is added as “semantic spice” in popular expressions. The same way I’ve heard “this is fucking genious” I’ve also said “c’est putain de genial”…
And then … there is the mother. Which gives birth to all of us, and is a very widely used word in swearing and insulting. Insulting one’s mother, in the form of doubting the origin of half of your DNA is very unsettling. Sometimes it makes sense (the very classic « motherfucker » or “son of a bitch” the exact very used translation in French being “fils de pute” – a bastard not knowing who your father is, sometimes less (enculé de ta mère, or enculé de ta race – a typical Maghreb-inspired insult, which does not mean much more than the juxtaposition of “sacred” identity (the mother, the race) and filth (sodomy).
Your thoughts and favorite swearing ? i’m all ears 🙂