I try to keep my language polite in front of small children, during job interviews and in meetings. But the rest of the time, I consider myself something of a connaisseur in the creative art of cursing. I’ll spare you the real-life examples: suffice it to say that my vocabulary is liberally spiced.
As soon as I’d achieved a basic level of fluency in French, I tried to go colloquial by slipping a few choice words of slang into my vocabulary. Nothing shocking or crude, I just wanted to be me and tell it like it is in the local lingo.
This is dangerous ground for a foreigner. It’s not that the French don’t swear. They do it well. But there is a time and place. And they don’t expect you, as a non-native speaker and a stranger who has come to their country to learn the language and culture, to use slang – even less to utter gros mots.
‘Les gros mots’* are swear words. Why these words are called ‘big’ rather than ‘bad’ in French remains a mystery. They are generally not big at all but rather short: merde, putain, con.
My early forays into foul French earned me a few raised eyebrows and the odd moment of shocked silence. But what really got me into trouble was when I tried to excuse my bad language by jokingly saying, “Pardon my French!”
“Pardon my – what?” asked my interlocutor, a friend of the family who enjoyed dusting off his conversational English whenever we met. He seemed affronted. I explained that we often used this expression in English to excuse foul language.
This gave him pause. “So, for you, French is equated with bad words?”
“No, not really,” I rushed to explain. “It’s supposed to be funny – as if the swear words were not really English.” I could see he wasn’t getting it. He shook his head in disbelief.
“I’ve heard the English insult the French in many ways before but this is – le comble.” As I wasn’t sure what the comble** was I just shrugged, repeating once again that it wasn’t meant to be insulting – just a joke.
“So we are a joke. I am not sure that most French people would find that funny,” he said, still shaking his head somewhat sadly.
I had inadvertently discovered that the French, for all their arrogance, can be wounded by the slings and arrows of ignoble humour. Their pride can take a lot of blows but not that of being the butt of a joke. Especially when told by the English.
*Gros mots is a familiar expression that comes from the proper word ‘grossièreté’ meaning crude or ignorant.
**C’est le comble = That beats all!