08 April 2006

Dropping the F-Bomb on France

[posted by Colin]

Since my arrival last September, I’ve noticed some important rhetorical differences between French and English. For example: while searching in my French-English dictionary one day, I discovered 35 phrases using the f-bomb. After memorizing several—hey, you never know when they’ll come in handy!—I heard several of the French translations on TV, usually in pretty innocuous circumstances:

Fou le camp! (F*** off! or Get the f*** out of here!)Said by the host to an interviewee on a panel discussion show.
Said by a game-show host to an eliminated contestant.

Foutu (F***ed)
Said by a game-show host to a contestant: “Nous sommes foutus.” (The whole phrase in English was: “One more mistake and we’re f***ed.”)

Merde (S***)
Said by an anchor on the evening news.
Said repeatedly by a celebrity contestant on a game show.
This word has also appeared in several letters that Auric wrote (and only once did he mean it as something stronger than “turd”).

Clearly, since the French equivalents of Dan Rather and Howie Mandel can drop these phrases on-camera, the French cuss words lack the conversation-stopping, room-silencing rhetorical power latent in the f-bomb.

As further evidence of this difference, I’ve noticed that when the French really want to go for a rhetorical flourish, they drop the f-bomb. Thus, we are graced here with tons of graffiti reading: “F*** Villepin,” “F*** Sarko,” and “F*** le CPE.” During the anti-CPE demonstrations, I’ve also noticed a variety of picket signs employing the word. My favorite of these is a parody of old American draft posters. Villepin is decked out in Uncle Sam’s star-spangled stove-pipe hat and blazer, pointing at the reader and saying, “I F*** YOU!”

Having said all that, it’s worth mentioning that there is at least one French word that carries some of the rhetorical impact of the f-bomb: nique (from the verb niquer). As a noun, the word is safe enough—according to my dictionary, this is the name for the gesture of thumbing your nose at someone. As a verb, let’s just say that on a scale of 0 to 3 stars (where 0 is safe and 1 star means you shouldn’t use the word in polite company), my dictionary gives the word 3 stars. I first encountered the word in the name of the legendary French hip-hop trio, “Nique ta mère” (Babelfish will tell you that ta mère means "your mother," I leave it to you to figure out the rest). A few years back, they made the news by giving a controversial performance in a very conservative, right-wing town in southern France (picture Public Enemy playing the Kansas State Fair). After prefacing their hit song “Police” with an impromptu speech about the French police, a couple “friendly” gendarmes helped them off-stage and brought them before a judge that night. (They received 6 month prison sentences and were banned from performing in France for a year. A successful appeal reduced that to 2 months “at the farm” and a hefty fine.)


At 10/4/06 13:57, Anonymous Remi said...

very interesting analysis.

can I be 'neurotic' about details? it is not:
Fou le camp (crazy the field)
Fous le camp (second person imperative of the very irregular verb 'foutre' - but else but irregularity can you expect from this verb?)

nota-bene to your post: we, French, can use this verb much more easily as you anglophones can use f*** since nobody remembers what is used to mean. It's meaning was gradually euphemized to a gentler meaning, something like 'broken' (c'est foutu = there's no hope; chuis foutu = i'm dead) or 'lost' (fous le camp = get lost)


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