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?

Pardon my French

IMG_1110I have a weakness for foul language. To me, a conversation without an expletive or two is like food without salt and pepper. It falls a little flat.

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!