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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The weirdest ways to insult someone in French

Okay maybe your French is pretty good by now, or at least you can get by. But there’s one thing the textbooks won’t teach you: the weird and wonderful language of French insults.

The weirdest ways to insult someone in French
Photo: Kurt Bauschardt/Flickr

Has a French (so-called) friend ever called you a vache espagnole (a Spanish cow) or worse, a lavette (dish cloth)?

The chances are you haven't got a clue what they’re on about or you've got completely the wrong end of the stick. 

To help you out and amuse you, The Local has put together a list of some of the weirdest of all French insults. Don't use them lightly. You have been warned. 

“Bête comme ses pieds”

Photo: Andy Polaine/Flickr

The English equivalent of this insult – which literally translates as “as stupid as his/her feet” – could be “as thick as a plank”. According to historical records, the French version first appeared in the 19th century. Feet became symbolic for stupidity because they’re the farthest part of the body from the brain.

“Ta mère est tellement petite que sa tête pue des pieds”

Just like the British and the Americans, the French love dragging each other’s mothers into shouting matches. It’s a stiff competition, but this particular insult, which translates as “Your mother is so small her head smells of feet” is possibly the mother of all mother jokes.

“Boudin”

Photo: Gilles Péris y Saborit/Flickr

Anyone who has had the misfortune to have tasted boudin (French blood sausage) in their lifetime will know that it’s not pleasant. No surprises then that boudin is also French slang for an ugly woman or an old prostitute. Use with caution.

“Lavette”

You may have worked out from the verb laver that this noun has something to do with cleaning – and technically you wouldn't be wrong. But as well as meaning dish cloth, lavette can be used to refer to a girl who lacks courage and energy.

“Andouille”

Photo: Bill Smith/Flickr

Yet another form of sausage has taken on more meanings in the French language. Whilst in English we might jokingly call someone a “silly sausage”, in France andouille, a form of smoked sausage, is also used for a person who is nonchalant or just plain lazy.

“Tête de noeud”

Literally “knot head” this insult has nothing to do with having knotty hair. A more accurate translation would be something slightly ruder like “[email protected]”.

“Espèces de mérinos mal peignés”

Photo: Maia C/Flickr

You may be a fan of Captain Haddock’s famous expletives in the English translation of the Tintin books, but have you ever wondered how they sound in the original French? This expletive, which translates literally as “a badly-groomed merino sheep” refers to a Spanish breed with a distinctive bushy hair-do.

“Blaireau”

Those of you who abide religiously by the more classic style of French dictionary might want to listen up. This insult can be all too easily misconstrued. Blaireau may be French for badger and shaving brush but it is also equally used as an equivalent to “a$$hole”.

“Casse couille”

In English you might say someone is a pain in the ass. But in France if you are annoying enough you are a “nut cracker” or “ball buster”.

“Tu parles français comme une vache espagnole”

Photo: Vincent Brassinne/Flickr

You speak French like a Spanish cow? Confusingly, it has nothing to do with sounding Spanish or like a cow. It simply means your accent needs a bit of work.

T'as une tête a faire sauter les plaques d'egouts! 

“You've got a face that would blow off manhole covers!” Ouch. Save this one for someone who really deserves it.

Vous êtes une pomme de terre avec le visage d'un cochon d’inde

This very precise insult, which translates to “You are a potato with the face of a guinea pig”, was certainly coined by someone with a very active imagination.   

Je te pisse en zig-zagà la raie du cul!

This creative abuse literally means “I piss in zig-zags on your arse crack.” That’s an image we’d like to get out of our heads as soon as possible.

An original version of this story was published on March 5th, 2013.

READ ALSO: La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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