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WTF?! looks at swearing (part 2)


So, you want to swear in French, do you? Bad idea. Think about the last time you heard a less-than-fluent foreigner swear in your native language. It just doesn’t sound right. Either it sounds shocking or unintentionally comical. As if a small child were saying it. My theory is that, since linguistically, you essentially are a small child, you are held to a different standard. You don’t get your swearing privileges until you reach linguistic adolescence.

I ran into a pathetic thread on a language forum where some poor student asked the following:

Ok well I’m new here and well yeah. I was wondering if anyone knew any really bad sayings in french. Like I know “ferme ta guele” and “tu es pleine de merde” or go to hell in french…”va chez le bonhomme” I think, but I want to know more! It would really impress my teacher. So if anyone could help!!Please

Yikes! Where do I start? With the idea that swearing would impress the teacher? With the hilarious “va chez le bonhomme” (who says that? Dora the explorer?)?

Imagine you are that student. You’d be stuck looking elsewhere, and from what I’ve seen, you will usually end up with about 40% wrong content. There’s a travel guide, for example, where we get to hear “Julie’s 1o favorite swear words.” I don’t know who Julie is, or why she keeps a list of her favorite swear words but the pronunciation guide alone is worth a good laugh. There’s “Poo-TAHN”  (is that a woman of loose morals or some new spin on a Canadian French fry dish?), “CHI-ant” (Something that bugs you or a knock-off brand of Italian wine?), “ta-GOOL” (A way to tell someone to shut up or a new horror movie villain?).

There are more helpful slang lists, but they mix outdated and current content. Maybe you’ll get lucky or maybe you’ll sound like a cantankerous old man (“Them dern aliens ruined my golldarn rubbarb patch with their flyin’ machine, dagnabbit!”

If I haven’t convinced you to steer clear of swearing, then my advice is, stick with merde. It’s an amazingly versatile way to express annoyance or frustration. Depending on how you say it, it can either be mild or strong. It can be a short monosyllabic expletive or it can be drawn out into two syllables for emphasis. You can build up its impact through repetition and volume.

Or better yet, take a cue from the Fantastic Mr. Fox (or the Smurfs) and just use one word for everything.

WTF?! looks at swearing (part 1)

You have probably seen the Orbit commercial with the “What the French toast” line in it. Why French toast? Why not just “What the French?!”? Does it take the level of absurdity up a notch? Does it tone it down?  Perhaps more important to our soon-to-be-released grammar book What The French?! is whether our less edible title will stop people from buying the book.

As a kid with a British mom, I was taught never to say “I have a bloody nose!”—lest my grandmother freak out. This was a clear, early lesson that words don’t affect all people the same way. My mother still calls What The French?! “that project you’re working on” or “your project.” I have heard some people (these are the ones who only watch G-rated movies) call substitutes for swear words (“Fetch!” and “Flip!” are as traditional in Utah, for example, as green Jell-O and funeral potatoes) “second string” swear-words. I’m not big on sports, but if you want to win a game, shouldn’t you really put in the first string?

Because we have texted “wtf” for “what the french” so many times back and forth in process of writing our book, the term has completely changed in my mind. When I see WTF, I only think What The French?!—“French” has become first string, as well it should. Whether you’re studying French grammar, traveling in Paris, or trying to identify that food you just ordered, “What the French?!” just feels like the right thing to say. If you teach ESL, maybe you should tell all your students that “What the French” is what Americans say when they’re angry. C’mon. You can help make it a thing.

Swearing is tricky business.

If we were on the game show Pyramid (remember that show?), and I started listing English translations of Québecois swear words, you might guess “Things you find in a church.” But if I listed the swear words a Parisian might use, you might guess “Things you find on New York mayoral candidate’s cell phone.”

The BBC (no, not that BBC—the Backdoor Broadcasting Company, which isn’t half as dirty as it sounds) has a downloadable recording of a lecture by Belgian linguist Jean-Marc Dewaele about multilingual swearing.  The introduction to his talk says he has the prize for “most obscene title of a scientific paper.” You’ll hear it it in his talk (sensitive listener alert). If it’s any consolation, he dilutes the shock with the dull academic subtitle “Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals” (which might be enough to alienate the half of the audience not offended by first part of the title). It’s worth a listen—yes listen, no video, but there are powerpoint slides.

A few things you will learn:

Which swear word do non-native English speakers underestimate in terms of its impact? Is swearing linked to level of education? Besides your teenage years, at what age do you swear the most? What are the effects of workplace swearing? Are your “linguistic rights” in a foreign language limited? Are you more/less likely to swear in a foreign language?

Tell us what you think. And stay tuned for part 2 about swearing next week.

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