Lessons in France: Cussing abroad

Sunday, August 6, 2017 1 Permalink 0

In the aftermath of Mr. Scaramucci’s brief but colorful tenure in the White House, I thought it was a good time to discuss how your own swearing changes when you live outside your mother tongue.


M is having a small problem at the office this week: The French have asked him to refrain from cussing.

It’s not that everyone in his workplace does not swear and pottymouth from time to time. It’s a rough and tumble international trade environment, and tempers flare, frustrations vent, no holds are barred, and everyone is an adult.

And that latter is really M’s trouble in a nutshell, the part about being, and sounding like, an adult.

The problem is not that he’s cussing, per se, but that, even after 18 years in the country, he cannot pull it off in French. It does not translate. His placement of key words, his lack of finesse about their valences in context, and most importantly his American accent in their pronunciation apparently all conspire to make him sound less like a growling senior manager and more like an exaggerated comedy sketch.

A giggling secretary was the first to pull him aside, and then they all glommed on in agreement: “For your own sake, please stop using French swear words! If you must swear, do it in English, like an American movie star in an action film. At least that we can respect. This… This Merduh!, this Fishy!, this Putin!, makes you sound like a toddler who needs his mouth washed out with soap. Everyone has to pretend not to laugh…”

Thus is the power we cede without even knowing it, sometimes for years, when breaching the barrier between languages. For some things it is better to stick close to home.


But even native linguistic turf is no longer always safe. Some words and sounds in English can also translate poorly as French all by themselves.

Even onomatopoeias like Hmmmm and Ewwwww can be lost in translation. Instead of “I’m not sure about that…” in French especially a written Hmmmm means “Yum!” but more often Yum as in “Sexy hot!”, more like Meowwww or Grrrrrr Tiger! in English. It means you are mildly but sexually titillated (the word excited itself is also a problem). So that innocent “Hmmm, I wonder if we need more information in this chart…” in an email never makes it past the first syllable, upon which your listeners have hung their gaping mouths.

The sound Ewwww similarly can be heard more as a Whoooweeeee, dawg!, which is admittedly less dangerous, but you can see the general problem.

We don’t even need to go into real words such as cool, derange, embrace, eventually, shot, tube, actual, fool, molest, bite… the list is long of examples that will not serve you well and cause varying degrees of chagrin. You learn quickly just to avoid them even when speaking in your own language, even at home.


Additionally the French enjoy a multitude of highly entertaining non-lingual verbal cues, giving more dramatic color to this language than any other I have ever known.

Who needs to use your hands to gesticulate wildly when you have mastered such tricks of the lips as Ooh-la-la-la-la (Wow! Look at that), Tock! (spot-on, right there, nailed it, got it), the sucking-clucking-clicking noise (you better stop that, or you will get into trouble), the sustained gargling-choking sound (signaling frustration, but not cardiac arrest), the phrase Beh dis-donc (roughly, Good Grief), Pfffft (dismissal), the IN-haled oui (the only inhaled word that I know of anywhere in any language), and of course the famous French Raspberry, a quick fart-like noise made by spitting between pursed lips (this signifies “No big deal,” “I don’t care,” “I don’t know,” “Don’t mention it,” or “So what? Move on”).

That last one may cause you to quickly cover your wine glass with one hand while stifling a laugh out loud with the other. But as incredible as it is to Anglophones, because it can mean so many different things (compare to “wow” in English, which can mean almost anything, depending on inflection), the French Raspberry is used about every 10 minutes in normal conversation, from doctor appointments to table waiters to your best friends at home.

And it is highly infectious. To your great surprise before long you will hear yourself use it, too. That is a great day, really, when you become French enough to use a spit-fart as a word.

That was M’s defense at the office this week: He did not apologize his word choice but only noted, “Well I learned these words from somewhere, you know. I learned them from you!