Why Macron’s use of the French swear word ‘emmerder’ is so hard to translate

French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy last week when he expressed his wish to "emmerder" the non-vaccinated. But as Pierre-Yves Modicom at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne explains, translating this crude term is no easy task.

French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy when he said he wanted to 'emmerder' the unvaccinated population of France.
French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy when he said he wanted to 'emmerder' the unvaccinated population of France. Translating this swear word into English is difficult. (Photo by Daniel Cole / POOL / AFP)

When President Emmanuel Macron vowed to “emmerder” the unvaccinated in France, he did not just throw down the gauntlet on his Covid policies, he also sparked a fervent linguistic debate.

The word “emmerder” is a verb derived from the noun “merde”, which in English literally translates to “shit”. But properly translating “emmerder” is far from straightforward, leaving the international media struggling to find the best equivalent. Did Macron want to “fuck” the unvaccinated? To “piss them off”? To “hassle” them? To “annoy” them?

Official translation aids were of little use in this instance: parallel corpora, which can be a useful tool to see how a word or an expression is usually rendered in another language, are mostly made up of semi-official texts, where such a word would never appear. Even the corpus of translations from the European Parliament’s proceedings displays only one example of the verb, and it is translated as “annoy”, which is more often used as a translation of the much more polite “irriter”.

Part of the difficulty comes from the derogatory nature of the remark. “Hassle” or “annoy” erase the more colourful dimension of this profanity, perhaps in line with different editorial standards of some English-language media.

But losing the derogatory dimension of the verb means losing part of its meaning: translating meaning is not only a matter of factual accuracy, it is also a matter of speaker intention. To capture the expressive meaning of “emmerder”, we need to look not just at the word itself, but at the comprehensive speech act of Macron’s entire statement.

So what does it really mean to use the sentence, “I would very much like to emmerder the unvaccinated”?

Last weekend, young protestors said that they would to “emmerde” France’s plan to implement a vaccine pass. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Taking “shit” verbs seriously

“Emmerder” literally means “to cover someone with shit”, but it has long since lost its original meaning. The meaning that has received most attention since Macron’s statement is an expressive variety of “irriter”, “to annoy”, with an additional note of contempt for the irritated person’s opposition to their predicament.

But there are other uses, which are best understood if the French language’s vast trove of “shit” verbs is taken into consideration.

The basic derogatory verb for pooing in French is “chier”. There is also a transitive version of this verb, which can be used to frame the person or the thing being covered with faeces as a direct object: “conchier”. “Conchier” also has another meaning: “to have extreme contempt or hatred for someone or something”.

Today, people usually use a prepositional construction, “chier sur quelque chose” or “chier dessus” (both meaning “to shit on”). There is also what grammarians call a causative for “chier”: “to have someone shit, to make someone shit” is to “faire chier”. This is an approximate equivalent to “emmerder”: to annoy, to bother, to piss off.

Both “faire chier” and “emmerder” also have a pronominal version, too: “se faire chier” or “s’emmerder”, both meaning “to be bored”. Note that their more formal equivalent is also a pronominal verb, “s’ennuyer”, whose non-pronominal variant, “ennuyer”, means nothing else than… “to annoy”.

Anti-vaccine pass protestors in Paris were incensed by Macron’s comments. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

So, there is a system here: whether polite or profane, the reflexive of “to annoy” means “to get bored”. Correspondingly, “chiant” and “emmerdant” have become synonyms, meaning annoying, tedious and boring.

Considering all these different meanings and formulations, “being a pain in the ass for someone” may actually seem a convenient proposal for Macron’s use of “emmerder”. But most speakers of both languages would probably argue that something is lost here.

I want to claim that what is lost has much to do with the major difference between “emmerder” and the chier-family: the fact that the former can no longer be used to refer to any concrete situation involving faeces.

First-person swearing

The key to understand this is the special relationship between “emmerder” and the first-person subject (“je” in French, “I” in English). I argue that this specific factor is what caused Macron’s statement to upset many people, as he used the first person: “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.”

“J’emmerde les non-vaccinés” would actually mean something between “I don’t give a shit about these people” and “they can kiss my ass”. Similarly, “Je t’emmerde” means “Get off, to hell with you”.

One of the ways to perform this kind of rebuke in French would be to simply utter the slur “Merde!”, not as an interjection expressing surprise, disapproval or rage, but as a demonstration of opposition to the person speaking to you. “Je vous dis merde!” (“I say ‘shit’ to you!”) also carries that meaning.

Remember that unlike the verbs from the kinship of “chier”, “emmerder” can no longer be used to designate anything to do with actual faeces. It is thus highly plausible that nowadays, the “merde” in “emmerder” does not refer to excrement, but to the slur itself: emmerder does not mean “cover someone with shit”, but “to say ‘shit’ to someone”.

This is what many linguists would call a delocutive or delocutionary verb (like “to welcome” in English).

In the first person, “saying ‘shit!’ to someone” does not mean “addressing the word ‘shit’ at someone”. It means, somewhat redundantly, “doing what you do when you say ‘shit’ to someone”, namely: annoying them, or pissing them off. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, the actual meaning of that phrase can be found in the goal of the “language game” of uttering it at all.

In a nutshell: “emmerder” has lost its original meaning; it now always means “to annoy” with the additional component of profanity associated with the utterance of “merde”. In the first person, it is synonymous with “say merde”; and “saying merde” is a conventionalised speech act whose meaning is to annoy the addressee.

So, why not assume that “emmerder” always means “doing what you do when you say ‘merde!’ or ‘je t’emmerde!’ to someone”, even when you do it by other means than by uttering that word?

The implication would be that there has been meaning change of “saying merde” and “emmerder”, from the utterance of a word to the act which can be fulfilled, among other means, by uttering that word.

Performative profanity

This kind of change is not unique, it is characteristic for “performatives”. Performative verbs are verbs of speech used in the first person in frozen constructions and contexts, by someone who has the ability to fulfil this action by speaking it. For example, the president of a commission who opens hearings merely by saying something like, “I declare open the second day of hearings”.

Anything said by the President of France is definitively invested with this performative capacity. Consider Macron’s full statement: “I very much want to emmerder the non-vaccinated, so we’re going to go on like that right until the end.”

Former French President Georges Pompidou also famously used the term “emmerder”. So did former Prime Ministers Alain Juppé and François Fillon (Photo by AFP)

The second half is a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of the president’s first-person speech in the real world.

But of course, the President did not say “j’emmerde les non-vaccinés” (“I emmerde the unvaccinated”), but “j’ai très envie de les emmerder” (“I very much want to emmerde the unvaccinated”).

So what about this “avoir envie de” or “want to”? The presence of this auxiliary is enough to make the performative interpretation less strong, but it doesn’t erase it, especially in the context of a holder of legislative power speaking in the first person.

The ambiguity of the utterance and the difficulty in translating it arise from this in-between-state: Macron has not accomplished the performative act; he has just commented on his willingness to do so and on the fact that the desired result will come true.

Emmerder: a comprehensive view

If this view is correct, the problem with the translations proposed for “emmerder” is due to the fact that they focus on the effect of the designated action on the subjects (in this case, the unvaccinated) instead of insisting on the very specific agency carried by this verb, especially in the context of the first person and when the speaker enjoys a peculiar performative linguistic power.

Defending this unified view of the meaning of “emmerder” as “to annoy someone like you do it when you say ‘merde!’ or ‘je t’emmerde!’ to them”, we can assume that each context feature enriches or specifies the basic meaning of the verb. Each of the proposed translations thus captures a facet of meaning.

In this case, we are faced with a very special speaker and with a grammatical construction discreetly referring to the performative component of “emmerder”. Here, focusing on the word itself instead of considering the whole utterance leads us to miss an important feature of Macron’s statement: he not only wants to have the unvaccinated eat shit, he also wants to tell them to do so and go to hell, in his capacity as head of state.

Everything here is linked to the choice of a deliberately transgressive word by a very powerful person – the breaking of ordinary language rules by a head of state is already a signal that a demonstration of strength is underway.

What makes this statement remarkable from the point of view of language is that, as a speech act, it forms a highly consistent whole. All of the loose meaning features associated with the use of “emmerder” are tightly linked with and support one another: hassling, swearing and the capacity to enforce are shown to be one and the same thing. Some would call this power.

Photo: Pierre-Yves Modicom 

Pierre-Yves Modicom is a researcher and lecturer in linguistics, Germanic studies and semantics based at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne.  

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Member comments

  1. I’m told by my French friends whilst there’s no precise English equivalent to what he said, the essential import is that he wants to turn their lives to shit. Since many of the unvaccinated are children and the Government wanted the pass to apply to them as well, it must be a first for the President of France to castigate minors in this way. # Lost the plot

      1. Meaningless post since I didn’t say most of the unvaccinated are children ( just many of them ) or that the pass applied to under 12s. # irrelevant

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Revealed: France’s funniest politicians and their best ‘jokes’

Politicians' jokes are more usually met with a groan than a laugh, but France's annual prize for political humour has been awarded - here are the zingers judged the best in 2022.

Revealed: France's funniest politicians and their best 'jokes'

According to the jury on the Press club, Humour et Politique awards, the funniest politician in France is the Communist leader (and 2022 presidential candidate) Fabien Roussel.

His award-winning zinger is: “La station d’essence est le seul endroit en France où celui qui tient le pistolet est aussi celui qui se fait braquer.”

It translates as ‘the petrol station is the only place where the one holding the gun is also the one who is robbed’ – a joke that works much better in French where ‘pistolet’ means both a pistol and the petrol pump. 

On a side note for British readers – Roussel also looks quite a lot like left-wing UK comedian Stewart Lee, so maybe he has funny genes.

Second prize went to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with his withering assessment of Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for his old party in the 2022 presidential election, who did extremely badly.

“Ce n’est pas parce que tu achètes de la peinture, une toile et des pinceaux que tu deviens Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, elle a pris mes idées, mon programme et elle a fait 4.8 pourcent”

“It’s not because one buys paints, canvas and brushes that you become Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, she took my ideas, my manifesto and she got 4.8 percent of the vote.”

While these two were jokes – in the loosest sense of the word – the prize can also be awarded to politicians who make people laugh inadvertently, such as last year’s winner Marlène Schiappa who, when announcing plans to ban polygamy, felt the need to tell the French, “On ne va pas s’interdire les plans à trois” – we’re not going to outlaw threesomes.

Here’s the full list of finalists for the funniest political joke of 2022 – somehow we don’t think you’re at risk of split sides with any of these.

Ex-Prime minister Edouard Philippe talking about hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon: “Il faut une certaine audace pour que quelqu’un qui a été battu à une élection où il était candidat puisse penser qu’il sera élu à une élection où il n’est pas candidat!”

“It takes a certain audacity for someone who was defeated in an election where he was a candidate to think that he will be elected in an election where he is not a candidate!”

Ex-Assemblée nationale president Richard Ferrand: “Elisabeth Borne est formidable mais personne ne le sait.”

“Elisabeth Borne is great but no-one knows it.”

Ex-Macronist MP Thierry Solère: “Mon anatomie fait que si j’ai le cul entre deux chaises, je suis parfaitement assis.”

“My anatomy means that if I have my ass between two chairs, I am perfectly seated.”

Some information that might be useful for this one – the French phrase avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to have your ass between two chairs) is the equivalent of the English ‘falling between two stools’ – ie a person who cannot make up their mind what or who to support. Further information; Solère is a largish bloke.

Hard-left MP Eric Coquerel: “S’imaginer qu’on va remplacer Jean-Luc Mélenchon comme ça, c’est une vue de l’esprit. C’est comme se poser la question de qui va remplacer Jaurès.”

“To imagine that we will replace [party leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon like that, is purely theoretical. It is like asking the question of who will replace Jaurès.”

Jean Jaurès is a revered figure on the French left, but not currently very active in politics, since he was assassinated in 1914.

Rachida Dati to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Votre présence au Conseil de Paris est aussi anecdotique que votre score à la présidentielle.”

“Your presence at the Council of Paris is as anecdotal as your score in the presidential election.”

There’s no doubt that Hidalgo did humiliatingly badly in the presidential election with a score of 1.75 percent. Daiti didn’t stand in the presidential elections but she did put herself forward to be mayor of Paris in 2020 and was convincingly beaten by . . . Anne Hidalgo.

So that’s the ‘jokes’, but there were also some entries for inadvertently funny moments.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Tous les matins, je me lève en me disant que tout le monde m’aime.”

“Every morning, I wake up and tell myself that everyone loves me.”

But the undisputed queen of this genre is the green MP Sandrine Rousseau, whose ideas and policy announcements seem to have provoked a great deal of mirth.

Je voudrais qu’il y ait une possibilité de délit de non-partage des tâches domestiques – I would like there to be the possibility of a crime of not equally sharing domestic tasks

Les SDF meurent plus de chaleur l’été que l’hiver – The homeless die from heat more in the summer than the winter

Il faut changer aussi de mentalité pour que manger une entrecôte cuite sur un barbecue ne soit plus un symbole de virilité – We must also change our mentality so that eating a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.

If you prefer your humour a little more scientific, Phd researcher Théo Delemazure has done a study of which politicians and political parties are funniest when speaking in parliament.

He analysed how often speeches raise a smile or a laugh (which presumably includes sarcastic laughter) and concluded that the party that gets the most laughs is the hard-left La France Insoumise.

They are also the party that speaks most often, however, when he calculated the laughter rate per time spent speaking, the prize went to the centre-right Les Républicains.