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?

12 thoughts on “The most insulting word in French

  1. Interesting.

    One thing that has happened to me (being a French-Canadian) is that French people will think they are “cute” and adapting their language to my Quebecois French by using one of the common swear words used in Quebec without realising that they are downright insulting (the Quebecois swear words are all linked to the Catholic religion). These swear words are very strong and not to be used in regular conversations. I had to explain it to someone recently who used one of them thinking he was being “cute”…It made him feel bad but I thought it was important to explain to him the impact of what he had said…(Suzanne)

    1. Oh dear, I can just imagine….those swear words were immortalized some years ago by ‘Les Guignols de l’Info’ on Canal Plus. These TV puppets did a pretty funny impression of Celine Dion (or perhaps her husband) who was always uttering such profanities. At least, funny to the French –I can understand that someone from Quebec might not find it funny! 😉

      1. Hi Mel: I doubt that Céline Dion would ever use such words though her husband might. It is not very lady-like to use swear words in Quebec. It is mostly done by men! I don’t think the French really understand what it means and how it should be used…Interesting how the French language has evolved differently on both side of the ocean.

      2. Interesting indeed, especially how they are both so completely insular (from one another) in cultural terms. And at the risk of incurring the wrath of my fellow French countrymen, there is a tendency to assume that their humor is universally shared: I’m often embarrassed by French friends who loudly make fun of ‘l’accent Suisse’ when we’re in French-speaking Switzerland!

  2. As you said a lot of it is down to context. I’m a teaching assistant in France and in my first few weeks I called a child ‘con’ – I’d only heard it used in the context of idiot, so when I found out all the other connotations I felt dreadful! I just hope the kid wasn’t aware of them… Obviously now I’ve been living there a lot longer, I’m much more clued up on what is acceptable and what isn’t.

    1. That’s funny! I read that the word ‘con’ is used a lot more lightly in the south of France, though, is that where you are? And that reminds me, I once confused ‘cochonneries'(junk) with ‘conneries’ (bullshit) when telling a pediatrician about my son’s proclivity for eating things that weren’t good for him!

  3. I’d like to chat a little not about your main subject, pauvre, but about its companion, this multi-tasks “con” . It originally means the female vagina in slang, but where does this come from ? Well, in modern French a slang term to name this body part is ” la chatte”, the she-cat . In Middle Age it was another animal, the rabbit . In this old time, a rabbit was “un conil”, from the Iberic influenced Latin cuniculus . Nowadays in Spanish a rabbit is still “un conejo” . So this word “con” means a rabbit meaning a vagina .
    There are lots of connections between cats and rabbits . When they are skinned they look the same, and many dishonest butchers used to sell cats as rabbits ( the famous children song about la Mère Michel who lost her cat who has been sold as a rabbit by the naughty butcher is a remaining of those times ) .
    Un lapin/un conil is not a unique example of a complete name changing . A fox in modern French is ” un renard”, but in the time of “un conil”, a fox was called ” un goupil” .
    There are different elements to say about “pauvre” but it’s enough writing for now .

      1. Pauvre is commonly used as you think . It only becomes insulting when associated with a real insult . But it’s not an exception, several adjectives give a special colour to ordinary insults . Gros, petit, grand, triste, etc… I could write a booklet about the different notions conveyed by “con” when preceded by a list of adjectives . Each one has a different connotation : pauvre con, petit con, grand con, gros con, sale con, triste con, sinistre con, …
        And about Sarkozy, we were a lot to consider this sentence in his mouth was an unbearable shame for the idea of a President of the Republic, but : 1) we don’t care more about PC than about sexuality and 2) we already thank that this man had no dignity nor class, no culture, it was a shame for France to have propulsed such a rat into this once prestigious function . This guy had nothing French in his spirit, no notion even about what France could mean .

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