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Swear words lend a colloquial (spoken) impact to the message being shared. Swear words traditionally relate to matters which are most likely to offend others. This attracts people’s attention and invokes an emotional response from those who are listening.
If you travel anywhere in Québec or listen to Francophones speak anywhere in Canada, you will certainly run into swear words or obscenities. They are used much more loosely used in French than in English.
In East Asian societies (China for example), the most sacred aspects of society are family networks and honouring one’s parents and ancestors. It is therefore no surprise that East Asian swear words have mostly to do with one’s mother, ancestors, and family relations (if you were to say “Your mother” to someone in Chinese, don’t be surprised if you get an angry response).
In Western societies, for many centuries the Church was the most sacred aspect of society. Religious blasphemy was the most sure-fire way to invoke a negative or emotional reaction. Therefore many of our Western English swear words in Canada and the USA relate to God, or subjects which were determined taboo by religion and religious puritan principles.
Examples are “Damned” (which relates to hell), “F@#$” (which is an affront to the Church’s conservative views towards intercourse), “Hell” (self-explanatory), “Shit” (which indirectly contravenes the notion of the Church’s early puritan obsessions with cleanliness and purity), “Pissed” (for the same reasons as “shit”), “C#@t” (which relates to genitalia – a subject rendered taboo by the church), etc. etc.
In Canadian and Québec French, swear words also stem from a liturgical (church / clerical) origin. However, unlike more abstract Canadian English swear words, most Canadian French obscenities stem from the objects used in Catholic ceremonies.
Swear words in Québec and Canadian French are called “des jurons” or “des sacres”.
Important note: French swear words in Canada are very different from French swear words in France, with only a few exceptions (such as merde/marde, pute/putain, etc.)
In Québec and elsewhere in French Canada, there’s a general consensus that most of the objects and swear words relate to traditions in the Catholic Church. Yet what most people in Québec do not realize is that Canadian & Québec French swear words would not have existed had it not been for the Protestant church’s presence in Québec and North America from the time of Samuel de Champlain (essentially, day one).
A photo I took of a bar sign in Montréal the other day. A photo full of irony. A “Ciboire” is both a sacred Catholic wafer box / ciborium, but is also a French swear word. Here, the bar is playing on the irony between its modern “obscene” meaning, and its historical “religious” meaning.
There were three major parishioner groups in North America in the 1600s and early 1700s: (1) the French Catholics, (2) the French Protestants (known as the Huguenots) who were prosecuted in France and who fled to the North America to escape persecution from French Catholics, (3) Anglophone (as well as Dutch speaking) Protestants.
(On a personal note, I’m in part descended from several families of the original Protestant French settlers, not the Catholic French settlers… among them Louis Dubois, the head of the Huguenots, and several others from 1614 to the late 1600s. The Protestant French colonialists made their way westward, and Western Canada is now populated with many of their descendants. Interestingly enough, the total number of descendants of the original Protestant French settlers now probably outnumbers all the descendants of the original Catholic French settlers in North America. All of this is something which is not taught in Québec’s education system… which unfortunately contributes to the notion of the Two Solitudes [It can be a bit frustrating]).
The “Protestant French” population in North America was viewed by the “Catholic French” population as being blasphemous and as “outsiders” (despite being of the same French origins). The Catholic French population in North America made a specific point of demarcating the difference between “Catholic French settlers” and “Protestant French settlers” by creating swear words which related to “Catholic-specific” ritual pieces (this is why North American French swears are based upon Catholic “objects”, versus North American English swear words which are based upon general abstract religion).
HOW TO USE SWEAR WORDS IN FRENCH
Swear words in Canadian & Québec French are often inserted into sentences in the same way as in English. In very general terms, the most common ways of using them follow four simple rules. (There are other ways to use them, but the following are the main ways we use them the most often):
1. As an imperative:
- F#@#! I’ve had it!
- Tarbarwatte! Que j’en ai marre!
- Shit that’s great!
- Crisse qu’y est bon!
- God-damn it!
2. Using “de” (of a) to link the swear word with the object to which it refers:
- C’est un ciboire de char!
- That’s a hell of a car!
- Toé, le p’tit câline de morvaillon!
- You, ya little pisser of a brat!
3. As a tensified verb:
Generally by adding the equivalent an English “-ed” at the end (which is “é” in French). Thus, hostie (damn) can be conjugated to a past/present passive tense, hostié (damned).
- Son hostié char!
- His damned car!
- C’t’un cristié bon gateau!
- God-damn that cake is good!
4. Adding “en X” after a verb, an adjective or an adverb
- Je suis tanné en cimoinak!
- I’m so F’in tired of it!
- Le ciel et si bleu en ostie!
- The sky is so god-damned blue!
HAVING FUN WITH SWEARS
You can have a lot of fun with our French swears. They’re much more flexible than English swears. You can mix and match them, and play on sounds.
Example 1 : My main gym buddy for many years was Francophone. He always used to tease me about one physical aspect or another of mine. But I would throw the insults right back at him. I played on the French swear expression of calling someone “Viande de chien” (dog meat). But I modified it and always called him “Viande de bouche de cheval!” (horse-mouth meat). His busted a gut every time! (“Hé, toi-là! Viande de bouche de cheval, que c’est qui se passe?”, “Hey! Horse mouth meat, what’s up?”).
Example 2 : Instead of saying a hard-core swear word, you can substitute it with a less-offensive word which takes the first letter of the offensive swear word, or which sounds similar.
Take this sentence for example: “Il a trop acheté en ciboire!” (Christ, he bought too much!).
“Ciboire” can be replaced by something as mundane as s’il vous plaît, Simon, cite, etc.
They all start with a “SEE” sound. Thus you can say “Il a trop acheté en s’il vous plaît“. This is best when you are unaware of how the obscenity (such as “ciboire”) would be taken by the person you’re talking to. Creative, isn’t it?
SOFTENING OF SWEARS
One of the reasons why there are so many swear words in Québec and Canadian French is owing to the number of “softened” swears. Softening makes them much more acceptable and allows them to be said to a larger audience.
In English a softer version of “Damn” would be “Darn”. A softened version of “Shit” would be “Schnoot”. A softened version of “F#@$*” would be “Fudge”. “Pissed” is softened to “Peeved”. “C*&#” is softened to “Pussy”, and so on.
Unlike in English, the softening possibilities in French go on and on and on – to the extent that there are hundreds of them (English likely only has a few dozen, or less).
THE NEXT FEW POSTS
The next few posts will give alphabetical lists of many swear words in Québec and Canadian French, and related “softened” words. Best now to charge your pace-makers, and to put passwords on your computers for the kiddies!!
SERIES: QUÉBEC AND CANADIAN FRENCH SWEAR WORDS (6 POSTS)
- Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Introduction to swear words – Part 1 (#239)
- Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears A to CH – Part 2 (#240)
- Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears CI to J – Part 3 (#241)
- Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears M to SAC – Part 4 (#242)
- Gettin’ down ‘n vulgar! – Swears SAI to V – Part 5 (#243)
- Gettin’ vulgar! This ain’t no picture book for the kiddies! – Part 6 (#244)