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An ode to the greatest French swear word ever
Photo: David Goehring/Flickr

An ode to the greatest French swear word ever

Oliver Gee · 1 Mar 2016, 15:02

Published: 01 Mar 2016 15:02 GMT+01:00
Updated: 01 Mar 2016 15:02 GMT+01:00

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The chances are that if you've spent any time in France you've heard the word 'putain' or "Puuuuuuutaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin!" and probably uttered it yourself on numerous occasions.
If you haven't yet come across this classic Gallic gros mot, then it's highly likely that someone has used it about you (especially if you've tried driving on the roads).
The wise old sages down at the Académie Française might not agree (what do they know anyhow), but it's arguably the most useful word in French, albeit one that has to be used with caution.
Indeed The Local picked it out as one of the French words that should be adopted in English. (Let's face it, "shit!" just doesn't do it anymore.)
Tell me more
"Putain", is the most commonly-used swear word among French people (and among expats who've been here longer than three years.)
It literally means something like "whore" or "hooker", although is probably most similar to "fuck" in English in the way it is used. 
There are two ways to pronounce it. The first is puTAIN (pronounced poo-TAHn), the other drops out the u and becomes almost one syllable, so p'TAIN (pTAHn). 
Hang on, isn't that the name of the Russian President?
No. That's Putin (with the stress on the first syllable). But that's very observant of you. The French noticed the similarities too, and conveniently refer to the former KGB agent as Poutine instead, because he's not the type of guy you want to call a "whore" on a daily basis.
Putain! Is that the Russian President? Photo: AFP
So if it's got nothing to do with Vlad, where does the word come from?
From the word "pute", which means "dirty woman" in old French. In fact, many people use the word pute instead of putain, especially if they are directing the insult at a person. "She is such a pute." 
French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, who is in her forties, tells us it was her generation that made the word popular.
Photo: debaird/Flickr
OK so what's the English equivalent?
It's got about the same level of offensiveness as "shit" and the literal equivalent of "whore". Chevalier-Karfis, the founder of the language site French Today, says putain is "as versatile as 'fuck' but less strong".
It's important to note that the word is far less extreme than the famous English "C-word" (that some young French anglophiles have an unfortunate love of saying among Anglo audiences). 
However when used by itself as an exclamation, Chevalier-Karfis reckons putain can fairly be translated to something as innocent as "Oh my God!" in terms of meaning alone. 
Here are some more from the ever-helpful translation site Word Reference
Wow so it doesn't come alone then?
Nope, there are endless derivatives. If you really want, you can take it a step further and say putain de bordel de merde (literally: "the whore of the brothel of shit" or "f**k f**k f**k!). Yes, people actually say that. There's also putain de connard or putain de salaud (basically f**king arsehole)
Ok so when can I use it?
"Putain! as an exclamation covers a whole range of emotions, from anger, to joy, fear to surprise," says Chevalier-Karfis.
As an interjection it's especially popular (such as in shock when seeing a car crash or an amazing goal).
But it's a whole lot more versatile than that. You could say it when seeing a friend you haven't seen for ages, or when you drop your croissant on the ground, or when you stub your toe, for example.
You can also use it as an adjective: This putain de chien is "this f**ker of a dog..."
So... basically I can say it all the time then?
NO! There is a big difference in when you could say it to when you should say it.
You should use this word in select company. Saying it in front of your mother-in-law or your boss could lead to serious consequences in terms of pay-rises or inheritance. And you shouldn't say it in front of impressionable children, even though most of them say it anyway, says Chevalier-Karfis.
"I don't allow my ten-year-old daughter to say it, though she probably uses it with her friends," she says. 
Story continues below…
"And I still don't use it in front of my parents, though I do use it a lot more than I should."
This fun YouTube clip gives an idea of just how versatile the word is.
So, can I get away with using it as a French learner?
Some say using "putain" is a good sign you're going native but our language expert recommends all learners steer clear of slang in the beginning because the risk of getting it wrong is all too great. 
"It's very easy to use a strong slang word while not understanding how strong it is. Foreigners may try to translate a word they use back home," she says.
"Slang stands out in the mouth of a foreigner, and it's easy for it to seem forced or contrived." 
"If you have to use it, be sure you really understand it first, as it will stand out twice as strongly as when a French person says it."
She suggests that a student in their twenties could get away with it far more easily than someone in their fifties living in the countryside.
Swearing is a language skill that is best kept in your passive vocabulary, says Chevalier-Karfis. 
In other words, know it don't show it - and you'll be fine. Bonne chance. 
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