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Why 'putain' is France's greatest swear word

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Why 'putain' is France's greatest swear word
Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG / AFP

There's one French word you'll grow to love more than most but it needs to be used with extreme caution. Warning: This story contains (a lot of) explicit language.

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The chances are that if you've spent any time in France you've heard the word 'putain' or "Puuuuuuutaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiin!" on numerous occasions.

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.

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"Putain", is the most commonly-used swear word in France, and its usage are extremely wide-ranging.

READ MORE: Nine signs that you are becoming French

It literally means something like "whore" or "hooker" although it's no longer used in that sense. If you really insist on calling someone a whore, that would be pute. Men can be fils de pute - son of a whore.

Putain has evolved to become the all-purpose French swear word, ranging from 'oh damn' right up to 'fuck' depending on how you use it.

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

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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 refer to the former KGB agent as Poutine. That's also the name of a Canadian snack, but it's probably a better way to refer to a man who has assassins on speed dial. Allegedly.

OK so how do I use it?

The great thing about putain is that it's really versatile - softly sighing 'oh putain' when you see the queue stretching out of the door of the post office will not offend anyone.

On the other hand, a situation that involves screaming abuse at someone and essentially wishing them a lifetime of misery will definitely involve a putain, probably in one of its compound forms (see below).

French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, the founder of the language site French Today, says putain is "as versatile as 'fuck' but less strong".

You'll hear it frequently uttered on primetime TV with no-one turning a hair

It's important to note that the word is in many circumstances less strong than the English 'fuck' and far less extreme than the famous English "C-word" (that some young French anglophiles have an unfortunate love of saying among Anglo audiences).

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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. 

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'll hear it a lot during sports commentary (yes, even on TV) and Allez putain is the classic shout of 'fucking come on guys!) for your sports team.

You can also use it as an adjective: Ce putain de chien - this fucker of a dog

If you're using it to give extra emphasis to what you're saying, then it usually goes to the end of the sentence.

I don't fucking care - Je m'en fous, putain

(Or you could just mix it up with a 'je m'en fucking fous' as France-based Irish rugby coach Ronan O'Gara does in this fantastic dressing room speech to his team).

 

Where the fuck is he? - Il est ou, putain? 

Here are some more from the ever-helpful translation site Word Reference

Screenshot from Word Reference

Wow, so it doesn't come alone?

Nope, there are endless derivatives and the general rule of thumb is that it gets more offensive if you're pairing it with other explicit phrases.

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" but it really means something like 'for fuck's sake, this is completely fucked'

There's also putain de connard or putain de salaud  - basically fucking asshole or fucking dickhead, for use on someone you're not altogether keen on.

Perhaps the most famous, and longest, putain compound is this scene from The Matrix.

 

 

He says; Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculé de ta mère. Hardly an everyday expression in France, but it shows the versatility of putting putain together with other French gros mots.

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. 

"And I still don't use it in front of my parents, though I do use it a lot more than I should."

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.

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"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."

Of course a lot depends on context - younger people in cities are more likely to get away with this and a lot depends on who you are talking to.

"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."

But whether you use it or not, you will certainly hear it all the time so it's good to understand and appreciate its many intricacies. 

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Anonymous 2021/10/26 02:14
"Know it, don't show it" is good advice... and probably good for the French to observe in English-speaking countries as well: They seem to like our "f-word" a lot ;-) Recently in Paris I saw an ardoise outside a bar that read "Fucking Cocktails" lol. I have to admit even I was a bit shocked. We'd never see that here in the US! But the cocktails *were* good!
Anonymous 2019/04/23 19:54
LOL, loved the YouTube video. She's really good with her Putain expressions ???

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