SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

An ode to the greatest French swear word

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

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

Member comments

  1. “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!

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

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.

SHOW COMMENTS