I will have to preface this one with an apology to readers of delicate sensibility. (Although it is doubtful that I have any such readers, given my penchant for foul language.)
You may be forgiven for thinking that the naughtiest word in the French language isn’t really very bad at all. After all, it has three letters, not four. And it has a legitimate meaning and place in the dictionary. Literally: the posterior of the human or animal anatomy, or the base of a lamp
Have you guessed?
Cul. More politely, le derrière, les fesses. English equivalent, depending on your origins and upbringing: backside, bum, butt, arse or ass.
It can be perfectly innocent, which is also why it’s naughty. I once heard a woman at the office describe a coworker as being ‘un peu cul-cul.’ She said this in a low voice, so at first I thought she meant something sexual. Then realized it just meant ‘niais’ which is rather silly or stupid.
There is a whole series of French expressions in which ‘cul’ plays the leading role. Some are perfectly polite but in most cases overly familiar for professional situations. Some of my favorites are: Etre faux-cul (to be fake), tomber sur le cul (to fall over in surprise) or even avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to hesitate between two choices).
And my absolute favorite: ‘cucul la praline.’ If anyone can explain why a candy-coated nut should be the epitome of the ridiculous, please enlighten me.
Here’s one of my beau-père’s favorite expressions: ‘Tu tournes en rond comme une poule qui a mal au cul.’ Literally: You’re turning around like a chicken with a sore butt. I don’t know why a chicken would do this (perhaps after laying too many eggs?) but it does call up an image of someone who doesn’t know what to do next.
In popular terms, however, ‘cul’ is most frequently used to describe a porn film, an extramarital affair, or a sexy something.
I banned this word from my vocabulary years ago, after telling people we lived on a cul-de-sac and being laughed out of the room. Seems living ‘on the ass-end of the bag’ is not as desirable as I’d thought.
That will conclude my insider tour of the seamy underbelly of the French language – at least for now. Feel free to share your own (mis)adventures or favorite faux pas!
Message from WordPress when I hit pubish: “You published your 69th post!” How fitting is that? 😉
I don’t understand why people laughed when you said ” cul-de-sac” because it’s a perfectly suitable term, synonym of “impasse”, and I heard or used it many times without triggering even a smile . Your friends must be dumb …
There’s another proper name ,”le cul de la bouteille” to mean the bottle bottom, not considered either as a swear word .
About cul-cul la praline, you have to dive deep into historical French popular mindset . About people fond of respectability more than anything else, who don’t have fun, who judge badly any fantasy, we say “cul serré”, between other terms like ” il a un balai dans le cul”, a broom in the ass . This implies they don’t poop . Une praline is like a tiny and hard turd, like what constipated people do .
Another recent phrase meaning someone is sompletely stunned by an event is ” ça me troue le cul”, it digs a hole in my arse .
An old and universal one meaning you’re really fed up with something is ” j’en ai plein le cul ” .
“Tu l’as dans le cul” means you failed, you lost, you’ve been crooked, etc…
And let’s not forget the synonym of being lucky, “avoir de la chance” is commonly replaced by “avoir du cul” .
Funny how the same word has so many – and very different – meanings. Luck, failure, constipation… I do love ‘je n’ai plein le cul’ (but I’ll try not to use it in polite company!)
You can say ” J’en ai plein le dos” instead . This one is colloquial but correct .
“J’en ai plein le cul” for being fed up and “avoir du cul” for being lucky are very ancient and very usual . “Se casser le cul” is another one : it means working very hard to get a result .
I wrote once about the infinite slangish, fanciful or poetic ways to say anything French popular mindset has produced along centuries . This time we only speak of “cul” of course, and it’s a water drop in an ocean . This “French paradox” gets along well with the existence of the Académie Française and the deeply ingraned respect towards the notion of “correct French” . This paradox echoes the peculiar relationship French citizens have grown with rules and regulations of all kinds . We love, society needs regulations, but they must not be applied with a robotic inhumanity as in Scandinavia , Switzerland and UK . And forever, f… the police !
“the same word has so many meanings” . It’s not a word, it’s a phrase . “Cul” has little more importance than an article here . The importance is not in someone’s “cul”, but in what we do with that “cul”, how we treat it . You ‘ll find abysally more tracks and meanings with the first word of French expression : foutre ( fous, foutu, etc…).
Great post Mel. I laughed out loud, which is always a good thing, and what you do so well…making us laugh. Merci bien.
Lovely to know it made you chuckle. Living in France, a sense of humor is a key survival skill. Cheers!
My cul wants to live in france.
Hello Mel, What a nice post ! I’m pretty sure it will drive traffic to your blog as people seem to be particularly interested in swear words and slang !
I’ve been thinking about what you said about the cul-de-sac. I remember thinking the American pronunciation was very funny – something like “kel de sac” – when I heard our American friends using it to describe the nice house they had just bought in Texas !
I live “dans un cul-de-sac”, which is nice for French people too. But it’s true that I never say : Nous habitons dans un cul-de-sac. We say: Nous habitons (rue…). C’est bien parce que c’est un cul-de-sac. / C’est super tranquille parce que c’est un cul-de-sac / parce que ça ne va nulle part. Or : Nous habitons dans une impasse. Or : Nous habitons (rue). C’est une impasse.
I don’t know why “habiter dans un cul-de-sac” doesn’t sound quite right ! (especially as we tend to forget that there is the word “cul” in this expression and think of it as one word, something like “Qdsac”) In the other phrases that you mentioned, we are much more aware of the impact of “cul”.
I also love “cucul la praline” ! (But some of my students didn’t understand when I said it last week. I don’t know what they say instead.)
Bonne journée dans ton cul-de-sac !
Anne, thanks so much for lending your nuanced eye to cul-de-sac. I think also there’s a sense of ‘ëtre dans une impasse’ or being in a dead-end situation that makes it sound funny in French. Sort of like a ‘voie de garage’….And I really can’t think of any English equivalent to ‘cucul la praline’. But that’s the beauty of language; sometimes there are no translations. Cheers!
I’ll never be able to look at a dead end road in the same light again! xxx
Funny… Love the “ass end of the bag”! Yes, I can see why you’d stop using that term!
Cul de sac – we laughed our cul’s off
A fun one Mel but I have an idea my schoolboy French would probably get me arrested or laughed out of France
The ass end of a bag? I’d been wondering how to translate cul-de-sac. I am now enlightened but will never be able to use the phrase without giggling hysterically.
Okay, I never used it anyway. I’m American. I say dead-end street, which sounds pretty grim in its own very different way.
It is only “ass of a bag”, not “end of” . The image is pretty clear, the bottom of a bag has no exit .
But you know, like a lot of common words and expressions that we hear and use all our life, people never think of the literal or original meaning, so no one even smiles . When Anglophones shout “Fuck!” they have no vision of a sexual activity, when Francophones shout “Putain!” they don’t imagine a prostitute …
Ah but ‘ass end’ is the way we Anglos say it, dear Phil! To describe the unfortunate ‘butt’ ugly part of something. 😁
Yes, it’s funny isn’t it? And how have I never really imagined how awful is ‘dead end’ in its own way? 😂
I wish the seamier side of English was as entertaining. Congratulations on reaching your 69th great posts Mel.