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.
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?