The most insulting word in French

Casse-toi-pov'conThis one says a lot about the French, their language and their attitudes toward one another.

While not an insult on its own, one word is often used to add injury to insult.

Hint: it’s not what you might think.

Have you guessed?

‘Pauvre.’ Which means, purely and simply, poor.

Why in the world would the French word for poor be insulting? Do our Gallic cousins consider poverty itself to be an insult? I don’t think so, at least not in material terms. (Moral or intellectual bankruptcy is another matter). It would seem to have more to do with pity, and looking down on someone. When ‘pauvre’ is used in that sense, it’s a fine line between pity and ‘mépris’ (disdain).

But like most things in the French language, it all depends on how it’s used.

‘Mon pauvre’ can be a perfectly pleasant, if familiar, way of addressing a friend, expressing humor and empathy in a difficult situation.

Or it can be ironic and cutting, especially with the addition of another little word (pun intended): ‘petit.’

‘Ma pauvre petite dame.’ (My poor little woman). From mildly patronizing to downright pejorative, you can be sure that whoever says this to you is ‘taking the piss’ as the Brits will say.

But it gets worse.

Add ‘pauvre’ to one of the most commonly used ‘gros mots‘ in the French language, and you get downright insulting.

‘Pauvre con.’

And when you’re the President of France, words like that are not considered appropriate, even less so when making an official visit with full media attention. No matter how badly you’re provoked.

So when Nicolas Sarkozy extended his hand to a bystander at the Paris Agricultural Show back in 2008, and that fellow refused to shake it, saying ‘Don’t touch me, you’ll make me dirty,’ the French were shocked by their former president’s casual reply: ‘Casse-toi alors, pauvre con.’ So much so that it became a meme and something of a cultural phenomenon. Its popular version, ‘Casse-toi pov’con’ can still be found on everything from websites to t-shirts. It certainly marked a fall from grace and was an early sign that his quinquennat would not be renewed.

The word ‘con’ is hard to translate. While its original dictionary definition actually mentions the female sex apparatus (‘vagin’), in common usage it means idiot, or at worst, asshole. (Perhaps not quite as strong a word as the subtitle on the above clip!)

But the degree of insult is completely context-driven. One thing is sure: if you’re ever in a situation where you feel tempted to call someone a ‘pauvre’ so-and-so, be prepared for a strong reaction!

What’s the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to you in French?

Eulogy for the Easter Bunny

(], via Wikimedia Commons

By Véronique PAGNIER (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0

What a fine fellow was Peter Cottontail, that fluffy little bunny who delighted us as children by bringing chocolate Easter eggs. Hoppin’ down the bunny trail…Shame he decided to hop across the pond to France. Perhaps he didn’t speak the local lingo? When he said he was delivering Easter candy, perhaps something got lost in translation? It must have sounded like “chop off my head and put it in the frying pan.”

The first time I ever ate rabbit was at Easter Sunday lunch chez my beaux-parents. Seeing those little body parts floating in wine sauce was a little shocking to my anglophone sensibilities: not that I object to eating our furry friends on principle, just that rabbit had never been on the menu before.

Rabbit is traditionally eaten not just at Easter (when lamb is the more traditional dish) but all year long in France. It is appreciated for its lean white meat and good value — rabbit can be bought very cheaply and served in dozens of ways.

The French have no notion of the Easter bunny. The tradition in France is that the church bells, les cloches, fly off to Rome and return for Pâques with chocolates for the children.

And when the French sit down to Sunday lunch, with the Easter bunny as the guest of honor, no effort is made to soften the blow for those with finer sentiments. I remember that Beau-père served up the dish on a lovely platter, the tiny head one of several parts. My mother-in-law had a penchant for la tête. It was finicky, so she picked it up and ate it with her fingers, finely picking the bones with her teeth.

He was a good rabbit. May his memory live on in our hearts.

Bon appétit et Joyeuses Pâques!

The coolest word in the French language

Creative Commons,

Creative Commons,

It slips into phrases like an uninvited guest, crashing the party yet instantly finding its place.

A single letter long, it belongs to a very elite group indeed – one of the two shortest French words.

Have you guessed?

It’s ‘y’.

Or the Greek ‘i’ as it’s known in French – pronounced “ee-greque.”

It is both a vowel and a consonant. How cool is that? If it were human, surely it would be wearing Ray-Bans and sitting by the pool, sipping Bacardi on ice.

It’s so low profile a word that I had to check my dictionary to ensure that it really is a word, and not just an element of speech. An adverbial pronoun, it’s a word that acts like a sort of stand in – an understudy who occasionally replaces the starring role.

It has no real meaning of its own, other than that of designating a place. The closest English translation is ‘there.’ Are you going to the party? Oui, j’y vais.

It’s subtle, and elusive to English ears. Which is probably why I was hesitant to use it at first. It felt sort of daring the first time I pronounced it – moving things around in sentence order kind of goes against the natural order of things. But soon enough, expressions like these just rolled off my tongue:

Ça y est. (Sa-ee-ay) That’s it. Done!

Allons-y! (A-lon-zee) Let’s go!

When we moved to Lyon some years ago, I learned that its denizens, les Lyonnais, are known for their love of the ‘y’ – they use it far more than people elsewhere in France, adding it to phrases where normally it would not appear.

For example: Do you like it?  Tu y aimes?

Want to know ‘y’? A few links for fellow grammar geeks:

‘Y’ explained very nicely in English:

More about the Lyonnais accent (in French):

The sneakiest word in the French language

It is the secret agent of the French language. Car il passe souvent inaperçu.

It is only two letters long, and most of the time isn’t even pronounced. Yet it changes everything.

Have you guessed?


The little negation word. One of a couple, ne pas, which preface or encircle a verb and transform its meaning from positive to negative.

Fumer. Ne pas fumer. Je fume. Je ne fume pas.

Simple, right? Its role and place in French grammar are perfectly clear. Until it goes undercover.

I didn’t learn this at the Alliance Française or in any French grammar book. I went out on the street and found that in practice, the ‘ne’ is simply dropped in spoken French.

Ce n’est pas becomes c’est pas. But it doesn’t really matter (ce n’est pas grave) unless you’re a stickler like me. Because you are saved by the unmistakeable ‘pas’ which is your very big clue that there’s a negative in there.

‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘j’sais pas’ or, to my non-native ears, what sounds like ‘chez pas’. (At first I wondered, who is this Pas and where does he live? Guess I’ll never know.)

So it’s complicated. But, hey, if them’s the rules, so be it. I can work with that.

Mais non! Ce n’est pas si simple.

To make matters more complicated, in literary French, the ‘ne’ often stays but the ‘pas’ is dropped. There’s a whole lot of rules as to when this happens, which you can read about here.

Et ça se complique. ‘Ne’ is often combined with a whole bunch of other words to indicate negation of some sort: jamais, rien, aucun, personne. Then dropped, like a hot potato, in spoken French.

Person? What’s with that? Une personne, ie a person, becomes (ne) personne, ie nobody.

Another variant is ‘ne plus’, which means no longer. Je ne fume plus. When the ‘ne’ disappears, as is its wont, it becomes ‘je fume plus’. Can we English be forgiven for finding this contradictory? I mean, plus is more, n’est-ce pas? In French, the rather subtle distinction is that when plus means more you pronounce the s, and when it means less you just say ‘plu’.

None of this can be learned in a book.

Et toi? What French words so you find most confusing? Do you ever find yourself, like me, trying to wrap your head around grammar rules?

The most overused words in French


Photo credit : Cadaverexquisito (Travail personnel) via Wikimedia Commons

A while back I wrote about les faux pas, or what not to do in France, thinking I really must write a dedicated post about the two most overused words in the French language.

So, here it is. Comme il faut.

These two little words, il faut, are so overused because there is so much than one must do, not do, say, be, and just plain remember in France. And because they have a way of just rolling off the tongue.

Il faut. One must. Like death and taxes, it’s unavoidable. An obligation. Generally followed by something else, either a verb or a verb construction.

“Il faut le faire, il faut le voir, il faut y aller…” (It must be done, it must be seen, one must go…). It’s a little indirect, which is how the French prefer it.

Sometimes, awkwardly but most compellingly, il faut is followed by the subjunctive form: Il faut que tu sois là. (You must be there.)

When expressed this way, there is no doubt about any semblance of a choice: you have to do the thing that comes after il faut que plus the subjunctive.

When I joined the ranks of the employed in France, I learned a new use for my favorite verb: the indirect order. I was a not-so-humble assistant who was expected, in between translations and other administrative tasks, to make various meeting and travel arrangements for les cadres (the management). I didn’t particularly enjoy this aspect of the job and was perhaps a little slow on the uptake, so my boss found himself in the rather awkward position of having to spell out what needed to be done.

“Il va falloir….” he would begin.

At first I thought he was abstractly describing things that would need to be done in some distant future. Then I got it: he was telling me what to do.

Rather elegant, n’est-ce pas?

I’ve decided to a series of posts on my favorite French words and expressions. Feel free to share yours!