Often, when people learn a new language, the first words they learn are the curse words. This was true for me with Spanish – as a kid, when my dad worked on the family car, I learned all sorts of great Spanish words. Perhaps he thought that if he swore in a different language, his impressionable little ones wouldn’t pick up on it.
Oh, but we did.
With French, it was different. I began studying French when I was 28 with the sweetest, most patient French professor ever. (Madame Loiseau – merci pour tout!) I didn’t give much thought to enriching my vocabulary in that direction; I needed to say “hello” and “goodbye” and “sorry about that, I’m a huge klutz.”
A year later, while living in Paris and attending a French immersion program, I used to spend mornings before school watching Inside the Actors Studio, broadcast in English with French subtitles. The host, James Lipton, always wrapped up the show by asking each actor he was interviewing the same five questions, one of which was, “What is your favorite curse word?”
Thus, I learned the good stuff.
The funny thing, though, is it all seems like nonsense to me. A lot of these words have no direct translation, and since I don’t always know the connotation and I’m not used to hearing them used, I don’t have a good feel for how vulgar or tame they really are. Merde, for example, is somewhere on the scale between “crap” and “shit.” A kid will get in trouble for saying it, but an adult throwing it into normal conversation, even in a French class, will at most garner a few giggles. The word putain is listed in my French/English dictionary as “whore” or “goddam,” or “bloody” if you’re British. But, actually, it’s the French equivalent of the “f” word.
Enter my brother-in-law. I adore my brother-in-law, Lionel; he’s a lot of fun and a great person. But (sorry, Lionel) sometimes, when he speaks, I wonder if I really do speak French at all. He uses so many colloquialisms and slang words that I can hardly follow what he’s saying sometimes. And – he’s got a potty mouth.
I learned a new phrase this last trip to France. Lionel came from Lyon to Antibes to visit us one weekend, and a woman walked off the train at an earlier stop with his suitcase. Several hours later, she called him to let him know about the “mix-up.” When he hung up his phone, he said, or rather yelled, “Grosse Conne!” Literally, it translates to “huge idiot.” Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Back in Paris a few weeks later, we were joking with Lionel about the incident, and I mimicked the way he had screamed at his closed cell phone. I didn’t quite yell it, but I said it loud enough that my mother-in-law came running into the room in a state of near panic and said, in French, “Was that Carol? It couldn’t be!” I suddenly felt like a misbehaving twelve-year-old. So, I did what any twelve-year-old would do: I blamed it on someone else. “Lionel taught it to me.” Turns out it’s quite a bit more vulgar than “huge idiot.” Which is impossible to know unless you spend time with native speakers and embarrass yourself several times. I try to take the safe route – I want to know these words so I can tell if I’m being insulted, but I tend to not say them.
Except for merde. I like that one.