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FRENCH LANGUAGE MYTHS

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‘Sacre bleu!’ Do the French really say that?

Do the French really say "sacre bleu!" or "zut alors!" when they want to curse? Or is it just a myth Anglos and their media have engineered? And if they don't use them then what do the French really say when they want to swear?

'Sacre bleu!' Do the French really say that?
"Sacrebleu! Zut alorsù! Mon Dieu!, how many of these do the French really say? Photo: Shutterstock

Every time something bad happens in France, whether the wine harvest is down or a president has been caught with his pants down you can almost be guaranteed some English news site (normally the Daily Mail), somewhere, will start their headline with the words “Sacre Bleu!”

Or if it’s not “Sacre Bleu!” (actually written “sacrebleu” in French) it will be “zut alors!” or perhaps even “Mon Dieu!”.

It seems the equivalent would be French news sites starting articles about British PM David Cameron’s beach strip and the like with the words “Golly Gosh!” or “Heavens above!”, except we don’t see that too much.

This raises the question, does anyone in France actually use terms like “Sacre Bleu”? And if not then what do the French really say when they want to express shock or air their frustrations.

We take a closer look.

Sacrebleu!

Sacrebleu is a stereotypical and very old fashioned French curse, which is rarely used by the French these days. An English equivalent would be “My Goodness!” or “Golly Gosh!” It was once considered very offensive.

It literally means “sacred blue,” but it comes from “sacré Dieu” or “sacred God.” “Bleu” was used by people to replace “Dieu” in order to avoid the blasphemy of explicitly using the name of God.

Even grand-parents don’t really say it anymore, but you will probably find it used in French novels from the 19th and early 20th century.

The reason the English presume all the French say sacrebleu! can perhaps be blamed on Agatha Christie’s fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who was very fond of the phrase.

Zut alors !

This is another expression you’ll probably have heard said in more English than French. It’s an old fashioned soft curse that is often translated as “darn” or “shoot”. The “alors” is added on to give it extra emphasis except it has lost its power over the years. Like “sacrebleu”, “zut alors” has pretty much disappeared, or at least among the younger generation and you’ll likely draw a few smirks or strange glances if you use it these days.

The shorter version “zut” is however used more frequently used and won’t get you into trouble.

Mon Dieu!

The “oh my god” of French is another one that seems more common in English than in French, however unlike “sacrébleu” and “zut alors”, you’ll still hear it being said in France these days, although perhaps so much not among the younger generation.

For a secular country like France, “Mon Dieu!” has proved to be a popular way of expressing anger or shock over the years, although probably not among the more traditionally Catholic population.

Bon sang !

This is what parents or grandparents will often utter when they get angry with their children. “Bon sang” expresses angry disbelief and can perhaps be translated as “good grief” or for heaven's sake”. “Bon sang! Why would you do that?” “Bon sang! What were you thinking?” Again, it's not really for the younger generation but it is seen as a “sweet curse”.

Oh la vache !

What does a cow have to do with anything? This expression, which is widely used, is actually a bit like “holy cow” in English.

You use it to express your disbelief, your surprise or your pain. Everyone says it, especially to react to an incredible or surprising story that they have just heard. For example you might hear “Oh la vache, c’est vrai”?!

Merde!

Now we’re getting to the more popular curse words in French. “Merde”, meaning “shit!”, of course, is one of the most common curses in the French language that parents desperately try not to teach their children, but it is a lost cause, just like in English.

When they complain, French people naturally punctuate their sentences with “merde” or its longer version “merde alors”, so you’ll probably hear it more a few times a day.

Putain

Among young French people, “putain” is so common, it may even be used as often as the word “oui”. And it packs a serious punch, with the nearest equivalent in English probably being “f**k!”. It can be used to express anger, but can also be used to describe something amazing (“C’est un putain d’artiste!”). And it's not one to use around your in-laws. it comes from the word “pute” meaning “whore”.

Despite its obvious offensiveness, “Putain” is used by pretty much everyone, to say anything, anywhere. It's not to be confused with “Putin”, who is the strongman president of Russia. To use a more polite version of “putain”, or if there are children around, French people often transform it into “purée!” (literally “mash!”), just as they are uttering the word.

Fais chier/ça me soûle!

Another quite common curse word is “fais chier!” is the perfect way to tell the world how annoyed you are (or ca me fait chier) and usually you have to scream it, otherwise it loses all its charms. It basically means some thing along the lines of “it pisses me off”. A more polite version is “ça me soûle” (literally “it gets me drunk”), which is very often used by teenagers, especially during fights with their parents.

by Lea Surugue

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Nine French words that the French just don’t use

These words are all technically correct and are in the dictionary - use them in everyday conversation however and you're likely to earn yourself a few funny looks and sniggers.

Nine French words that the French just don't use
Don't always trust the dictionary. Photo: Y-Boychenko/Depositphotos

1. Sacré bleu!

This one seems to crop up in Anglophone news headlines all the time when journalists wish to create a sense of classic Frenchness. For example a story in a San Fransisco based newspaper about an international battle over internet domain names was headlined 'French scream sacré bleu at US government'.

The reason for this is probably that it's in many French textbooks that Anglophone schoolchildren use so they grow up thinking that all Frenchmen shout sacré bleu! whenever they tread in dog muck or run out of Gauloises (and fair enough, it's probably too soon to start teaching kids about the joys of a good putain).

In reality this is very rarely used in France for the simple reason that it's very old fashioned. It would be like turning up in England and shouting 'crikey' or 'golly Moses' at people and expecting them not to smirk.

Although we should report that one writer at The Local says she heard it recently from a woman in the street who was nearly knocked over by a cyclist. She did add, however, that the woman was 'about 95'.


French tech words have a few traps for the unwary. Photo: AFP

2. L'accès sans fil a internet

This is a proper phrase that was coined by the venerable Academie Française and it means connecting to the internet without the use of wires or cable. For some reason, however, the cumbersome phrase never really caught on and the French prefer using the far simpler 'wifi' which was coined in the Anglophone world. In French however it is pronounced 'weefee' and after some debate it was decided that it should be masculine – le wifi. So if you need access to the internet in a hotel, café or meeting space you can simply ask someone Avez-vous le code pour le wifi? – do you have the wifi password?

3. Faire l'amour

Anyone reared on a diet of romance novels and fantasies about charming Frenchmen and/or sexy French ladies may be hoping to do a spot of this, but use the phrase and you'll find yourself less likely to score. In the same way that not many people really say 'making love' in English, faire l'amour is not widely used in France either. French people, especially younger ones, generally use either coucher (to sleep with), the English word 'sex' or a few slightly cruder alternatives like baiser or niquer.

4. Ménage à trois

And while we're hovering around the bedroom, this French phrase may be very well known in the Anglophone world to describe a night of fun involving three people, but is rarely used in that sense in France. If this is what you're after, you'd do better propositioning your two likely candidates for un trio.

READ ALSO


If you want fireworks in the bedroom, you'll need to get the vocab right. Photo: AFP

5. Nonante

Sadly, this is not used in France and you're stuck with the cumbersome quatre-vingt-dix. The practical Swiss have decided that some of France's famously more outlandish numbering systems soixante dix, quatre-vingt, quatre-vingt-dix (70, 80 and 90) should be replaced with septante, huitante and nonante. In some parts of Belgium these are used too but not in France. So if you're based here you're stuck with puzzling out that 'four twenties, ten eight' means 98.

6. Mobile multifonction

This is another one courtesy of the Academie Française. The French language enthusiasts are so concerned about the possible erosion of the French language by a flood of techy new words from America that they've recently devoted quite a lot of time to coming up with French translations for popular tech gadgets and systems. This is a translation of 'smartphone' that has never quite caught on.

In reality most French people will refer to their 'smartphone' or even just their portable under the assumption that these days it's actually pretty hard to find a cell phone or mobile phone that doesn't have internet functions.

READ ALSO OPINION France's fight against new English words is totally stupid

7. Courriel

Another tech translation that never quite caught on is un courriel – this is the correct French translation for an email, but in reality most French people, especially the younger ones, will simply refer to un e-mail or un mail if they wan to send you an email.

8. RSVP

Used in the Anglophone world to denote a fancy party invitation that requires a response Répondez s'il vous plait is a well known French phrase. The use of French, of course, indicating that this is a sophisticated affair that won't involve beer or chips. But in France you won't see that on invitations, if it's the kind of do that needs a response, the phrase used will be a simple Réponse souhaitée.

9. Mot-dièse

If you want to tag someone in on Twitter it's probably best not to use this one. Another contribution from the Academie Française, this provoked not just disinterest but hilarity on social media when it was suggested as an alternative to hashtag.

 

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