First a quick caveat – we are not advising our readers to insult people in French. But you will certainly hear some of these words in everyday life and if you do decide that a situation requires an insult, it’s important to know exactly how strong the word you are saying is.
Swearwords often don’t translate exactly and a word or phrase that is only mildly offensive in English can be the nuclear option in French, and vice versa.
You need to know whether the insult you pick will merely express your views on the recipient’s driving skills or create such severe offence that three generations later your respective descendants will still be involved in a blood feud.
So here we go (or if you want more family-friendly versions, click here).
What is most commonly used?
Probably the one you will hear the most is putain.
It literally means ‘whore’, but it’s probably most similar to ‘fuck’ in English in the way it is used.
It’s mostly used as an expletive to express surprise or anger: the equivalent of ‘oh my god’.
Its strength can actually vary quite a lot – you will hear it being screamed in anger in some pretty extreme situations, but likewise if you turn up to the Post Office to find the queue stretching out of the door and softly mutter ‘oh putain‘ your fellow queue-members are unlikely to turn a hair.
You’ll also hear it on French TV at any time of the day, from football commentary to baking shows. It’s really all in how you say it.
Putain is also frequently coupled with other gros mots to make it stronger. You might hear putain de merde (fucking shit) or stronger still as putain de bordel de merde (literally ‘the whore of the brothel of shit’ but more like ‘for fuck’s fucking sake’).
While in English where you add ‘fucking’ before a noun to add emphasis, in French the putain tends to come after — C’est le bordel, putain ! – This is a fucking disaster!
What about the most common straight-out insult?
One of the most common insults for men is probably fils de pute, which could be translated as ‘son of a bitch’ or ‘son of a whore’.
Like in other Mediterranean countries, insulting a man’s mother is pretty strong.
It’s not what you say it’s how you say it
Tone plays an important role here. You may notice that men insult each other quite often in France, but if done in a joking manner, they can also, in a way, be used as a compliment.
However, this doesn’t really work the same with women, to whom insults are generally reserved for negative reasons.
Enculé is a good example. It literally means ‘fucked up the arse’, but is used similarly to ‘bastard’ in English (although enculé is pretty offensive towards gay people). French people will call someone an enculé if they’ve pissed them off: quel enculé celui-là – what a bastard. Bâtard is a close equivalent, though somewhat less common.
However when used in a joking manner, or when accompanied with a smile and a pat on the back, enculé ! and bâtard ! could also be interpreted as a ‘good for you’ or ‘well done’.
Con can be similarly confusing. When pronounced with disdain, it’s a common insult that is better translated in English as ‘idiot’. Quel con (what an idiot)
But you may notice friends saying this to each other in a joking manner. T’es con (you’re an idiot) when someone tells a bad joke, for example. In this case, con can also be directed to women.
C’est con is also a common way of saying ‘that’s stupid’.
What about other insults?
The longer version of con is connard and that pretty much is always an insult, usually translated as asshole or dickhead. The female version connasse is a vulgar insult similar to ‘bitch’.
Then there is crétin, which is another way of saying ‘moron’ or ‘idiot’, but it’s stronger than idiot.
Another variant in the connard/crétin-category is sous-merde, which directly translates as ‘under-shit’, and means that someone is worth less than shit. It’s a great one to shout at the TV when you strongly disagree with politicians or others, as it implies that they have no idea of what they’re talking about, and are not worthy of their position.
It’s a pretty vulgar way of saying that a person is nul (worthless).
Then there is branleur (branleuse for women) – wanker – which is the one-word way of saying “a person that passes their time doing nothing”.
French also has the standard genitalia slang you find in basically any language including chatte which means ‘pussy’ and and bite which means ‘dick’.
While bite is used pretty much exactly the same as dick in English – quelle bite ! – what a dick! – chatte is quite rarely used as an insult.
So what are the harshest?
One of the worsts insults you can call someone in French is pute – whore – but this only applies to women. Other female-specific insults are salope (slut) or pétasse (bitch), both strong, and directed at the woman herself rather than her father or mother (hello patriarchy).
The female version of con, conne, is a pretty charged insult in French, and should not be used lightly. Quelle conne ! (what an idiot!) is definitely not a nice thing to say about someone. Connasse is even worse, as conne means ‘stupid’ and connasse also implies someone being a ‘bitch’.
Va te faire enculer (shove it up your ass) is a common way of telling someone to get lost, and won’t go down well in any situation. Another version is va te faire foutre (fuck off).
Adding the word sale (dirty) before any of the aforementioned insults will bring up the aggressiveness a couple of notches. Sale con (dirty idiot), sale conne (dirty bitch), sale bâtard (dirty bastard) and, perhaps the worst of all: sale fils de pute (dirty son of a bitch).
To insult groups of people at the same time, French people will sometimes add bande de (gang of/bunch of) before a swearword: bande de cons (bunch of idiots), bande de connards (bunch of arseholes), bande de crétins (bunch of morons), and so on.
Ta mère – your mother – is another one that is never not aggressive and offensive. The full version – nique ta mère – means ‘fuck your mum’ and is therefore extremely insulting. Both are quite commonly used and you will sometimes also hear longer versions such as le maire nique ta mère – the mayor is screwing your mum (although some people regard this as pretty lame).
Ending a sentence – any sentence – by sa mère (their mother) turns it into an insult. For example, if you burn your dinner, you can exclaim putain de pommes de terres surgelées de merde sa mère ! – making it crystal clear that you intend to swear off frozen potatoes for good.