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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

What’s the worst possible insult you can use in French?

While French may be regarded around the world as one of the most beautiful and romantic languages, you’ll quickly notice profanities are very much part of everyday speech. But as a foreigner it's not always easy to judge exactly how offensive certain words are. (Contains a lot of offensive language).

What's the worst possible insult you can use in French?
Photo: Icons8 Team on Unsplash

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.

READ ALSO Putain: An ode to the most versatile French swearword 

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.

Member comments

  1. Thank you for bringing a bit of light relief to my day. I can just hear French people saying these, and the long strings are definitely the best. Wish I were able to share these with my pupils who would love them but definitely can’t!

  2. I lived and worked in France for 10 years in the 1980s/90s. I was really shocked ( back in those days) by the amount of gros mots used in the office ! Even my beloved French boss ( RIP ), who I considered perfect , used to swear. I kept a
    PETIT ROBERT to hand so I could look up the meanings and could scarcely believe my eyes. At the same time, they were very fussy about the tutoyer and vousvoyer ( it was an international company linked to the French Bourse and The City of London). My dear French colleague ( Brigitte ) banned me from apologising all the time ( I’m sorry, I’m sorry…). She said that if somebody trod on my toes , I would say ” I’m sorry”. Very funny to look back on it ( with nostalgia ).

    1. What a charming anecdote! Imagining someone looking up swear words in the dictionary at work in disbelief made me chuckle, thanks!

  3. As a french person, I have to warn any of you about “le maire nique ta mère”.

    /!\ C’est vraiment très RINGARD /!\

    Just NEVER say that to any french person because this is so naff, so ridiculous. No one would actually take it seriously (even if you say it with the most angry tone you can). Like most french people would just think you are making a bad and cheesy joke.

    It’s the kind of thing your uncle could say when he’s getting drunk during a family dinner.
    I don’t think you want to be looking like a drunk uncle.

    So, NEVER SAY THAT.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French

Always fascinating and frequently baffling, France is a country that often has people searching for answers on Google - but according to the search engine what are the most commonly asked questions about France and the French?

Sex, strikes and surrender: The most commonly asked questions about France and the French
Photo: Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

Looking at Google’s autocomplete for ‘Why is France . . .’ and ‘Why are the French . . .’ is a fascinating exercise, but perhaps tells us more about the preconceptions and stereotypes of ‘les Anglo Saxons’ than it does about France.

Google’s autocomplete uses a complicated and user-specific formula that we don’t even pretend to understand, but a major factor is how often these questions are Googled.

The adjectives that emerge about France are interesting – powerful, popular and expensive. Sounds like a Jackie Collins heroine. However, when we ask ‘why are the French . . .’ the suggestions are more of a mixed bag.

On the one hand slim, romantic and good at cooking, the French are also apparently critical rioters who like to surrender. 

Here are our suggestions to some of these questions, and why they are asked so often.

Why is France so popular? A slightly vague question but it might mean popular with tourists. France is the world’s number one tourist destination, a title it has held for several years.

We think the answer to that is a no-brainer, but we might be biased – here are some of the many reasons that tourists flock to France.

Why is France called France? The name comes from the Latin Francia which means ‘realm of the Franks’ referring to a tribe who lived in what is now France during the Roman period.

France is also sometimes referred to as l’Hexagone (the hexagon) because of its shape – this designation refers specifically to mainland France. France also has several overseas territories informally referred to as les DOM-TOM some of which are administratively part of France.

It’s how (pub quiz fact alert) France shares a border with Brazil.

Why is France so expensive? Interesting question. Some things in France are undoubtedly comparatively expensive, most of all taxes for residents, the French are among the most highly taxed in Europe. Elsewhere things are more variable – property in Paris is extremely expensive but in others parts of France can be comparatively cheap.

Food shopping is relatively expensive but wine is cheap (and delicious). Here’s how France compares to some other countries on everyday items.

In general a good rule is to avoid Paris if you’re watching the centimes.

Why is France a flawed democracy? Fascinating question. France is a democracy with an elected upper and lower house of parliament, plus a Constitutional Court to examine new laws that touch on the rights of citizens.

It’s not without its problems as a country of course, with ongoing problems with inequality, police violence and racism to name but a few. But it’s interesting that this question doesn’t pop up on similar searches for other countries. It may be that this is to do with France’s status as a favourite target for ‘bashing’ in the anglophone press? 

Moving onto the French themselves, and the questions become less factual.

Why are the French so critical? The French would probably say they are direct rather than critical and are frequently baffled by English reticence, but most French people acknowledge that complaining is practically a national hobby. This is unlikely to change, so here’s how you could view complaining and scolding as positive traits.

Why are the French so slim? Disappointingly, the answer to this one is ‘they’re not’. Despite the stereotype of the slender, immaculately-dressed Parisienne, obesity is on the rise in France and more than half of French adults are overweight.

Even more disappointingly, those French people who are slim are usually that way because they eat sensibly and do lots of exercise, not because those croissants have magical properties. 

READ ALSO Sex, stairs and the Metro – how do Parisiens stay in shape?

Why are the French so romantic? Measuring romance is of course not a scientific endeavour, but a stubborn cliché over at least the last 150 years is that the French are romantic, or at least sexy.

It might be slightly exaggerated and in recent times women have suggested that the much-touted ‘romance’ is more akin to sexual harassment.

READ ALSO ‘Frenchmen aren’t that great in bed’ – 5 French dating myths exploded

Why are the French rioting/on strike? One of the most persistent images of France is strikes and it’s true, French workers do strike quite a lot. They are not, however, Europe’s top strikers and interestingly the word ‘strike’ appears nowhere in the most frequently asked questions about the country that does hold that crown.

What French strikes are, however, is noisy, disruptive and highly publicised. Likewise with French riots – protest quickly moves to the street in France and although the great majority of demonstrators are peaceful and well-behaved, a noisy minority (often the semi-professional rioters of the Black Bloc) like to smash bus shelters, set fire to street furniture and end up on the news.

READ ALSO Don’t ask why the French are always striking, ask what their strikes have achieved

Why are the French always surrendering? There are entire libraries of books on French military history which we won’t attempt to summarise here, except to say that the French history of surrender is not entirely one-sided – they surrendered in World War II (but ended up on the winning side), didn’t surrender in World War I, did surrender in the Franco-Prussian wars (with the indirect result that some parts of France now get a day off on Good Friday) and under Napoleon won a lot of battles before being beaten by a European Coalition.

The most famous quote about French surrender is “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” which was actually coined by a writer on The Simpsons, but was frequently used in the USA in the early 2000s. At that time, US president George W Bush was annoyed that President Jacques Chirac refused to join the US-UK lead invasion of Iraq.

Books have also been written on which country made the right choice there. 

If you have questions about France, head to our Reader questions section – or feel free to suggest your own answers in the comments section below.

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