Accidentally swearing in French

When you first start learning a language, it’s always a good idea to learn the bad words. This ensures that even if you can’t speak very well, you’ll know if someone is insulting you or not. Since swearing in French was not something I learned from the teachers in my immersion school, my friends and I first had to learn the bad words in English. Then, naturally, we would look them up in our dictionaries to see how to say them in French. However, this was a fairly unreliable method, since even if the dictionary had the word you want, it didn’t always tell you how to use it (our dictionaries were actual books back then, no Wordreference for us!).

Also, in general, there seem to be less truly bad words in French, since so many of the translations of things that would never be heard on American television or radio are perfectly acceptable here. Not that every other word is “merde” or anything, but the French have a relationship with words, and a way of playing with them, that is very different than in English. There are less words in French than in English, so they are very creative in the way they use their words. I am always particularly proud when I can figure out a pun without someone explaining it, and have even made one or two myself over the years.

There are also other ways of being rude than swearing. For example, my husband was telling me that he got so angry at the post office the other day, he left without saying goodbye. More than any bad words he could have said, this showed the person how upset he really was.

In my years in France, I’ve picked up a good number of foul expressions and slang that I use much more liberally than I do their English equivalents. Somehow it just doesn’t have the same weight as in English. I think it’s also still a lingering habit from childhood of using the French word so my parents couldn’t understand what I was saying (this being the main reason for spending all that time looking things up in dictionaries, of course). I thought I knew most of the worst ones, but I accidentally stumbled onto a few more this week. And while at work, of all places!

The first was while talking about the name “Fiona” and I said it was Irish, and I said something like “all ‘Fion’ names are usually Irish,” which made my colleague burst out laughing. I asked her what I’d said, and she whispered that “fion” was a very bad word. The internet translated it as “ass,” which doesn’t seem that bad, but it’s apparently quite vulgar.

For the second, we were discussing hair color (names and hair color are always hot topics in an HR department), and my mangled pronunciation of auburn turned into “aux burnes” which has to do boy bits . . . Later that day, my husband helpfully taught me the phrase “casser les burnes” which means to annoy someone, but I am under strict instructions to not use this in front of his mother, which means it’s definitely pretty bad.

So of all the ways to learn new bad words, what happened this past week was probably the funniest way. If I’d said similar things at a family event, everyone would have been too polite to say anything, though they may have snickered a bit. Even if I generally dislike situations at work where I make mistakes in French, sometimes it can be (unintentionally) hilarious, and I got to learn a few new things as well (though not really things I can use on a regular basis!).

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