SWEARING IN QUEBEC.

I’m astonished that in close to a decade of LH posts I’ve never written about the titular topic, but such appears to be the case. I’m guessing that many of you know that the Québécois use religious terms in their profanity; if you’re not au courant, Wikipedia will catch you up. Some of the best-known sacres are câlice (calice, literally “chalice”), crisse (Christ), ostie (hostie, “host”), and tabarnac (tabernacle, “tabernacle”). At any rate, Jordan of Macvaysia sent me a link to If you profane something no one holds sacred, does it make a swear?, from The Economist‘s “Johnson” language blog, and it makes some interesting points, discussing “an exhibition at the Musée des religions du monde (Museum of World Religions) in Nicolet near Montreal called Tabarnak: l’expo qui jure (Tabernacle: The exposition that curses)” and pointing out that this fine old tradition is in decline:

With the Roman Catholic church much less of a presence in the daily lives of Quebeckers, the religious words are losing their punch. Swear words disappear not through censorship, but when they no longer offend, according to the exhibit. The tamer ones—esprit (spirit), sacrament and baptême (baptism)—have already disappeared from daily discourse, it notes, and the others may soon follow. Olivier Bauer, a professor in Université de Montréal’s faculty of theology and author of “L’hostie, une passion québécoise”, believes even the impact of ostie, once the most popular swear word in Quebec, is weakening.

I disagree, though, with the cited theory that such swearing “was a form of rebelling against the Roman Catholic church”; though that may have been a factor for some people, it’s simply inevitable that swearing will draw from the most powerful psychological forces, and “hostie!” need not be a revolt against the church any more than “shit!” is a revolt against digestion.

Comments

  1. It’s not specifically Quebecois, but I’ve just learned from Wikipedia that the (no doubt very old-fashioned) exclamation “sacrebleu” is a Bowdlerism of “sacre Dieu”.
    Is “nom d’une pipe” also of religious origin?

  2. Weren’t there tons of these in English way back when, e.g. ‘snails=God’s nails, ‘sblood=God’s Blood, zounds=God’s wounds? Any idea why they faded away in English long before they did in Quebecois?

  3. “[Sacré] nom d’une pipe” < “de Dieu”. More or less like “what in the name of fortune?”

  4. Joseph Simmons: Because by and large Protestant swears are excrement-based and Catholic swears are religion-based. When the English became Protestant, the religion-based swears were lost within a few generations, with the exception of hell, damn, God, Jesus (Christ) (and their euphemistic forms heck, darn, gee, jeepers and the like).

  5. Not Quebecois, but faux Francais: Nom d’un nom d’un nom!

  6. marie-lucie says:

    True français would have been: Nom de nom de nom!. This is a euphemism for Nom de Dieu! (lit. “God’s name”), which was a swearword. Repetition made it worse.
    In my youth, Mon Dieu! was perfectly respectable and used a lot by older women, like English My God!, but Bon Dieu! was a bad swearword, used by men (not at all like Good God! in English). Beside Nom de Dieu!, my grandfather from Southern France often used Bon Dieu de Bon Dieu!, which was even worse than Bon Dieu!.

  7. their euphemistic forms heck, darn,
    I don’t think it was “heck” or “darn,” but wasn’t there a similar word that came up not so long ago on LH which turned out to be one of those shocking not-really-a-euphemism-after-all-thingies; i.e., a word with its own etymology that just came to sound like a contemporary curse? Maybe I’m thinking of “wiseacre,” but I thought there was another one, harder to believe. Maybe “fudge” as an exclamation? (I know I should look that one up myself, but I’m tired, need a computer break.)

  8. komfo,amonan says:

    I recently encountered, in a Cuban novel, Me cago en diez (loosely, Damn it), & while trying to figure out the reason for diez, discovered it was a euphemism for Dios. Duh.

  9. The decline in religious swearing may be an inevitable result of Quebec opening up to the world. It is possible that increased exposure to French as sworn in France, and English swearing is making younger Quebecois more self conscious about words like tabernac and ostie.
    Cowan’s point on Protestant vs. Catholic is interesting but doesn’t explain why religous swearing doesn’t seem much more important in Catholic German speaking regions compared to Protestant – excrement seems to be the preferred mode of discourse everywhere. Slavic languages also seem to favor sexually explicit swears whether Catholic or Orthodox.

  10. Certainly sh*t or damn won’t qualify in Russia, but there is an extinct or nearly extinct tradition of “едрить твою в бога душу мать” & “Умер Максим, ну и хуй с ним! Екалемане-купоросете, едри ж твою в бабушку, в дедушку и всех святых угодников” mostly associated with the Imperial merchant marine.

  11. Darn does have its own etymology: it’s a hybrid of euphemized damn and tarnal < Eternal (or possibly damnation x tarnation).

  12. JC (the other one): Because by and large Protestant swears are excrement-based and Catholic swears are religion-based.
    I don’t totally buy that. For one thing, Norwegian ones (i.e. Protestant) are mostly about God & the Devil and not at all scatological, and though I’ve never done a tally, apart from ‘shit’ itself or ‘piss’ I’d guess English-language ones are more ‘fuck’-based. I’d say it’s more of a dualistic thing: Roman-Catholic swearing is spiritual and Protestant is often more material. And atheists like to combine the two.

  13. michael farris says:

    A few years ago someone here made the point that at least for catholic countries if the local church is alligned with state power then you tend to get sacrilege as swearing so that Quebec where the church was politically powerful you got religious swearing while in France where it wasn’t so powerful you didn’t get so much.
    Also German (and Polish) catholics don’t traditionally used religion based swearing.
    Although the attempts by the church in Poland to be politically influential seem to have opened the doors a little in recent years and I have the idea that religious based swearing is more common now than it used to be (it used to be essentially non-existent so any detectable use will be noticeable).

  14. I’m not sure John Cowan’s point holds. In Swedish, most of the swearing is religious-based, such as “jävlar” (devils), the adjective “jävla” (an Old Swedish plural genitive: devils’), “fan” (the Devil, maybe originally ‘the enemy’), “helvete” (Hell, from “hel-vite”, ‘the punishment of Hell’) and many swearwords based on the specific number of devils invoked: “tusan” (thousand), “attans” (eighteen), “sjutton” (seventeen). Swearwords based on excrement (mainly “skit”, shit) have probably also been around for quite a while, while swearwords based on genitals seem to be a late 20th-century invention and swearwords based on sex or family relations seem to be mainly restricted to suburban youth dialects influenced by immigrant languages.

  15. I believe Catholic countries nowadays don’t use religion based swearing. I always have to remember that for many Americans (I mean people from USA specially puritans) blasphemy equals swearing. But back in the XVI and XVII I know for sure that religion based swearing was a real “bad” thing in Spain: like saying “¡Voto a Dios!” which was transformed in “¡Voto a TAL!” and there’re many other examples.
    Why this have changed? I don’t know.
    My father for instance always says “Me caigo y me levanto” which in its origin I’m sure it came from “Me cago en Dios” then “Me cago en diez”, but after some time what was felt as a bad thing was “cago” and God was completely forgotten.
    (¡Perdonen mi inglés, peor que nunca hoy ¿no?: una verdadera puteada al idioma y al estilo!)

  16. des von bladet says:

    True français would have been: Nom de nom de nom!. This is a euphemism for Nom de Dieu! (lit. “God’s name”), which was a swearword. Repetition made it worse.
    Cf. Kabouter Wesley’s trademark Godmiljaar!. Which admittedly isn’t much of a euphemism, but he isn’t after all that kind of kabouter.

  17. “Kabouter Wesley: This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by the Belgian Anti-Piracy Federation (BAF).”
    Nobody expects the Belgian Anti-Piracy Federation.

  18. >Komfo, amonan
    The word “hostia” is too much used in Spain as expletive expression and sometimes we say “me cago en la hostia” (I shit on…), also “…en Dios” or “…en la Virgen”. The most rude blasphemy I’ve read is “me cago en el infarto del corazón de Jesús” (I shit on heart attack of [sacred] heart of Jesus).
    Sometimes, above all in comic books, you can read “ostias” (without “h”); I thing this spelling mistake is used like a kind of euphemism. Also, as you said, someones change “diez” for “ros”, a similar voice to “Dios” as well.
    Although it’s not too much heard, a huge blasphemy is “me cago en Crista puta”, where they not only change the sex of Christ but also turn him into a prostitute.
    However, « ser la hostia » (to be someone or something the host) means to be extraordinary.

  19. des von bladet says:

    Godmiljaar! Get this one while it lasts!
    (Personally, I always expect the lackeys of the propertied classes. And a fanatical dedication to the Pope.)

  20. In adolesence I met the expressions of surprise or frustration “Christ on a bicycle” and “Jesus prune”.

  21. Are we sure that France didn’t use Quebec-style swearing before the Revolution?

  22. Godmiljaar! Get this one while it lasts!
    Thanks, I enjoyed that.
    Are we sure that France didn’t use Quebec-style swearing before the Revolution?
    I suspect M. Rabelais could answer that.

  23. “SPREEK VOOR UZELF NAZIBLOEM!”
    Well, there we are – Godwin’s Law strikes again.

  24. Anyone who thinks Catholic Germans do not use religiously laden swearwords cannot have spent much time in Bavaria, Herrgottsackzementnochamal!

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    While not used at all in AmEng (nor i believe among Canadians?), “bloody” is still a popular swearword in other Anglo-Protestant countries. Its origin seems disputed, with one perhaps fanciful theory being that it’s a minced version of “by our Lady.” A more direct reference to the Precious Blood of Our Lord and Savior (“Saviour,” I guess they would spell it) seems entirely plausible to me, although I don’t know the early manuscript evidence well enough to say how well it fits. Certainly other rival theories tend to have a trying-too-hard ring of fancifulness.

  26. I believe I learned my favorite religious curse, in Catalan, from a comment in LanguageHat.

  27. John Emerson says:

    When I was young, old Norwegians around here would still say “Jesus’ Mater” (Yeeeeeesus Ma-ter”), which had to go back 400 years to the Catholic Latin.

  28. Religious swearing is one thing, but things like chalice, ostie and tabarnac are just priceless! It feels like at some point they’ll just start shouting “church chairs!” “cassok!” “papamobile!”

  29. John Emerson says:

    The reason I’ve thought that religious cursing is Catholic is that there seemed to be a lot more of it in English before the Reformation. I’ve also heard it in Spanish. More study is needed, I guess.

  30. I believe I learned my favorite religious curse, in Catalan, from a comment in LanguageHat.
    I’d forgotten about that thread; it’s full of good stuff, including some discussion of québécois cursing.

  31. But why would “sacre bleu” have any power? Can it really just be a corruption?
    And do any real French people use it, or only the Simpsons?

  32. Jean-Pierre Metereau says:

    Thank you, Marie-Lucie! I moved to the US when I was 8 years old, but kept my French. I’ve told my students that bit about “Mon Dieu!” and “Bon Dieu!” but I’d started wondering whether that was true or not (advancing age is doing that to me).Glad to know I’m not just making stuff up.

  33. John Emerson says:

    “Bordel” which seems to be big in contemporary French French doesn’t show up on the Quebec Wiki page.
    One of my internet friends is a very useful source for French slang and cursing. I only understand about half of what she says, but I’m learning.

  34. My dog can say “Fuck off”.

  35. I suppose he learned that in the army.

  36. rootlesscosmo says:

    I knew a Spanish Civil War vet who had learned to say “Me cago en la leche de la Virgen puta.” A variable that hasn’t been mentioned in comparing national swear lexicons is the presence or absence of a lively anti-clerical tradition, like the one that was a notable feature of Spanish Anarchism in Andalusia and elsewhere.

  37. I guess as a native speaker I’m expected to step in…
    Hat: there’s a missing ACCENT AIGU on the second “e” of “quebecois” (can’t do diacritics from this keyboard, alas)
    John Emerson: “bordel” is an import from France, but unlike most it seems to be nativizing quite nicely, in Montreal at any rate.
    Two other imports, but these from the English-speaking world, are also nativizing: the b-word (the one which technically refers to a female dog) is spreading quickly among younger speakers, probably because there is no good native word occupying this semantic space (it may be facing competition from, or dividing semantic space with, the loan translation CHIENNE): and the f-word, now a first conjugation verb, which is used with a weakened, almost innocuous meaning: “to mess up”/”to screw up”.
    Hence such fine gems of language contact as C’TE BITCH-LA A LA TOUTE FUCKE SA RELATION. I trust a translation is not required…
    (invariable C’TE as a demonstrative, TOUTE used adverbially, non-etymological /l/ before several forms of the verb “avoir”, and pleonastic pre-verbal subject clitics (in this instance, “elle” reduced to /a/) even when an overt nominal subject is present, are other features of basilectal Quebec French speech: the last feature being rampant in colloquial French everywhere, whereas the others are much more specifically Quebec French).
    Jesus: I wonder about your claim that “ostias” is deliberately misspelled. Despite being a native speaker who attended a Catholic school, it took me quite some time before I figured out that HOSTIE and the swear word /sti/ were one and the same. Likewise, it took me a while to see that “decrisser”, a fine verb (mostly attested as an imperative), meaning “to f*** off”, was based on Christ’s name.

  38. Hat: there’s a missing ACCENT AIGU on the second “e” of “quebecois”
    Merci!

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Hm. The one I know occasionally uses sacrement and rarely tabarnac, but never hostie. I bet there’s a lot of regional variation within la Belle Province.

    Joseph Simmons: Because by and large Protestant swears are excrement-based and Catholic swears are religion-based.

    Slavic languages also seem to favor sexually explicit swears whether Catholic or Orthodox.

    German and Czech swears are excrement- and arse-based; and “damn” is hardly a swearword over here at all, “hell” lost that status completely long ago, and “Jesus”, “Mary”, and “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” are (hopelessly old-fashioned) exclamations of terror, not of wrath.
    In earlier centuries, though, when religion was taken seriously by large parts of the population, German did have things like “in three devils’ names”.

    Bon Dieu de Bon Dieu!

    Now I’m trying to imagine “espèce de bon dieu” 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

    “me cago en el infarto del corazón de Jesús”

    Priceless.

    Anyone who thinks Catholic Germans do not use religiously laden swearwords cannot have spent much time in Bavaria, Herrgottsackzementnochamal!

    Do they still do that?
    Anyway, with Bavaria I associate ssssssakrrra, not Sack Zement.

    “Bordel” which seems to be big in contemporary French French

    Yeah, but it just means “a hell of a mess”.

    “decrisser”, a fine verb (mostly attested as an imperative), meaning “to f*** off”

    Completely analogous to French French démerder. BTW, I’ve encountered démerdez-vous on TV.

  40. michael farris says:

    “”Bordel” which seems to be big in contemporary French French
    Yeah, but it just means “a hell of a mess”
    Aha! Burdel is used in just the same way in Polish and I was wondering where that could have come from. Technically it can also mean brothel but the mess meaning is more common.

  41. And in Russian they say бардак [bardák] in both senses, even though it has a different origin.

  42. one of the funny things about the way people swear here in Quebec is the relative casualness with which English swear words are used by francophone kids. My favourite example of this was in a fabric & crafts shop (so, average client probably falls into the middle-aged lady demographic). When I went to pay using a card the cashier encountered some technical difficulties and, frustrated, bellowed to the other end of the shop “Marie-Ève! La machine! C’est fucké!”

  43. David: “décrisser” and “(se) démerder” have different meanings. The latter means “to make do, to improvise one’s way out of a tough situation”: the former, in the imperative, means “to leave”.
    As a noun, “Bordel” is alive and kicking in Quebec, both in its proper (“brothel”) meaning and as a term for “total mess”: the ongoing nativization I referred to in my earlier comment revolves around its use for swearing pure and simple.
    koj: an excellent example of “fucké” with the meaning “broken, screwed up”, as I hope you realize.

  44. Thank you for that book, Stu. We’ll have to read it aloud to her over Christmas (she can’t read).
    the relative casualness with which English swear words are used by francophone kids.
    It’s the same in Norway. Not just kids, though. And I agree, it’s very odd to hear.

  45. Re “bloody”, the OED says:

    The origin is not quite certain; but there is good reason to think that it was at first a reference to the habits of the ‘bloods’ or aristocratic rowdies of the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th c. The phrase ‘bloody drunk’ was apparently = ‘as drunk as a blood’ (cf. ‘as drunk as a lord’); thence it was extended to kindred expressions, and at length to others; probably, in later times, its associations with bloodshed and murder (cf. a bloody battle, a bloody butcher) have recommended it to the rough classes as a word that appeals to their imagination. We may compare the prevalent craving for impressive or graphic intensives, seen in the use of jolly, awfully, terribly, devilish, deuced, damned, ripping, rattling, thumping, stunning, thundering, etc. There is no ground for the notion that ‘bloody’, offensive as from associations it now is to ears polite, contains any profane allusion or has connection with the oath ‘’s blood!’

    I have to imagine that note goes back to the first edition, but my 1998 New Oxford Dictionary of English tells much the same story (less the “rough classes” and “ears polite”, and adding that the supposed religious etymologies probably contributed to the rise in the word’s offensiveness after the mid 18th century).

  46. Does “bardak” have a different origin? I always thought it was simply a Russification of “bordel”.

  47. >Etienne
    As you know, the sound of both words is the same in Spanish. I think (talking about the religion, I don’t pontificate) really “ostia” is a way of writing this word meaning different senses that host. However, our dictionary has a meaning of “hostia” as smack or slap, whereas it says “ostia” is only a synonym of oyster.
    >David
    Yes, priceless; I laughed a lot when I read that.
    Actually my names are Jesús María so I’ve listen to say too many times: your name only needs a José, like the crib.

  48. Does “bardak” have a different origin? I always thought it was simply a Russification of “bordel”.
    Well, both are true in a sense. The actual word is from Turkish bardak, but the senses ‘brothel’ and ‘mess’ are influenced by the French term. That’s my understanding, anyway.

  49. rootlesscosmo says:

    The OED origin of “bloody” leaves me wondering how it acquired the very strong taboo that the invented etymology of “by Our Lady” was supposed to account for.
    W.S. Gilbert vigorously resisted the suggestion that “Ruddigore” was a euphuism: when someone spoke of it as “Bloodygore”, he said “To say that I admire your ruddy countenance, which I do, is not to say that I like your bloody cheek, which I don’t.”

  50. marie-lucie says:

    Greetings from France! I can’t do anything fancy on this keyboard either.
    JS: Weren’t there tons of these in English way back when, e.g. ‘snails=God’s nails, ‘sblood=God’s Blood, zounds=God’s wounds? Any idea why they faded away in English long before they did in Quebecois?
    —- These formations are not like the Québec ones, which do not mention parts of the body of Christ but sacred objects used in the Catholic mass.
    xyzzyva: Are we sure that France didn’t use Quebec-style swearing before the Revolution?
    —- I doubt it. It is not found in any work of literature that I know of. The influence of the Catholic Church in Québec seems to have been heavier than in any other country, perhaps because it linked its continued power to the survival of French identity. The injunction “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain” seems to have been extended to a taboo to the names of cult objects as well.
    Shelley: But why would “sacre bleu” have any power? Can it really just be a corruption?
    —- “Bleu” is not a “corruption” but a deliberate euphemism for “Dieu”. “Sacré” does not just mean ‘sacred’ in a solemn context, but in a swearword it is (or was) more or less equivalent to English “Damn(ed)!”
    And do any real French people use it, or only the Simpsons?
    —- The Simpsons are WAY behind the times in this respect. You might as well have contemporary Americans or Brits in a French series say “Gadzooks”! In French literature I associate it with the speech of older men, especially military ones, but certainly not after WWI at the latest.
    JPMetereau : I’ve told my students that bit about “Mon Dieu!” and “Bon Dieu!” … .Glad to know I’m not just making stuff up.
    —- A votre service!
    Etienne: there’s a missing ACCENT AIGU on the second “e” of “quebecois”
    —- I am glad you think so! I keep seeing it written “Québecois” (even in Québec sources) and it annoys me because it makes me want to pronounce “Québcois”.
    david: Now I’m trying to imagine “espèce de bon dieu”
    —- This would not be right: any word after “espèce de …” is an insulting epithet, as in “Espèce d’idiot!” ‘You idiot!’. You could not use the name of God (or any name) as an epithet.
    David, Etienne: “(se) démerder”… means “to make do, to improvise one’s way out of a tough situation”
    —-As far as I know, this verb is always reflexive. It is the slang equivalent of “se débrouiller”.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne: … A LA TOUTE FUCKE SA RELATION. … non-etymological /l/ before several forms of the verb “avoir
    —- Could the original reason be: a) preservation of the /l/ in “elle” before a vowel, or perhaps more likely b) remnant of the object pronoun /l(a)/ in front of the verb (as a clitic even in the presence of the Object noun)? (= “a la” from “elle l’a” ???

  52. David Marjanović says:

    This would not be right: any word after “espèce de …” is an insulting epithet

    I’m pretty sure this has reversed: if you put anything behind espèce de, it becomes an insult just as automatically as when Cpt. Haddock says it. (ORNITHOLOGUE !) Very practical.

    b) remnant of the object pronoun /l(a)/ in front of the verb (as a clitic even in the presence of the Object noun)? (= “a la” from “elle l’a” ???

    Would make sense, and would bolster the hypothesis that colloquial French is actually a
    pro-drop language with verb prefixes that agree with the subject and the object.

  53. Latin sacer means both sacred and accursed, as in the famous fragment of the XII Tables (the earliest written Roman law): Si patronus clienti fraudem fecerit, sacer esto ‘If a patron commits a fraud against his client, let him be outlawed’. A homo sacer was one who had sworn an oath bringing divine and human punishment on himself if he broke it, and who had in fact broken it, making him dedicated to the gods: like the English outlaw, anyone might kill him without penalty. Short of that, he had no legal or civil rights.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    (Like… if I called someone espèce d’ornithologue, it would be obvious to everyone that 1) the other party should feel insulted and 2) I somehow have a particularly low opinion of ornithologists. …For the record, I don’t.)

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Auri sacra fames! The accursed hunger after gold.

  56. Trond Engen says:

    David: I’m pretty sure you and marie-lucie agree. I read her point as “nobody would turn God into a curse by putting it behind espèce de.

  57. Trond Engen says:

    I meant to say “Nobody would turn God into an insult …”. Including the closing “””.

  58. Marie-Lucie: historically either or both of your explanations may be true, but synchronically the /l/ cannot be so explained: ÇA A DURÉ is typically realized as /saladyre/ in uneducated speech, where the /l/ has nothing to do with the subject pronoun or any direct object clitic pronoun.
    This is an old feature in Québec French: the French of the Western Canadian Métis, which broke off in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, has it. A similar agglutinated /l/ is also found with forms of AVOIR in Réunion creole, which suggests it was a feature of seventeenth-century French.

  59. LH, I had an inquest, albeit a superficial one, into the area where impure and sacral converge in language; you might find it interesting. Comments to that entry were also very interesting (in Russian): http://fregimus.livejournal.com/156012.html

  60. I had to give a presentation in a French conversation class about Quebec. I chose French cursewords. This is the video I showed, a scene from Bon Cop, Bad Cop:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U72QVCgh_Q

  61. LH, I had an inquest, albeit a superficial one, into the area where impure and sacral converge in language; you might find it interesting. Comments to that entry were also very interesting (in Russian): http://fregimus.livejournal.com/156012.html
    Yes, that’s an interesting thread. Here‘s the direct link; I especially enjoyed the discussions of крестец and дух/душа/дыхание.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    “a la” etc: merci Etienne, I was not familiar with this interesting feature.
    “espèce de”: In one of the early Tintin albums, one character insults another by saying “Espèce de chien!” ‘You dog!’ Milou ( Tintin’s dog, who often speaks or at least thinks in the early albums) insults him back with “Et vous, espèce d’homme!” ‘Same to you, you man!’ You can only use “espèce de” with a descriptive word identifying the person as what they are (at least in your opinion), so you could only say “espèce d’ornithologue” to a person who is actually an ornithologist. You would not say, for instance, “Espèce de Robert” any more than in English “You Robert!” as an insult. So you cannot say “Espèce de Dieu!”, using the name of God in a monotheistic religion. But I suppose that in a polytheistic context with many smaller gods, or in a cult whose leader claimed to be a god, you could say “Espèce de dieu!” as an insult.
    Captain Haddock’s cursing is different: he does not normally use “espèce de” but just long, unusual words such as “anacoluthe” or “ornithologue”, regardless of their actual meaning or their (non-)applicability to the situation or the person.

  63. “Et vous, espèce d’homme!”
    Does that mean that French has lost the tu of insult? It seems strange to swear at someone and use a V-form all in one breath.
    David:
    There is a famous crux in Purgatorio 22:40-41, where Statius, Dante’s example of repentant prodigality, quotes Virgil as saying (in Dante’s Italian): Per che non reggi tu, o sacra fame / de l’oro, l’appetito de’ mortali? Now this makes clear sense (‘To what do you not drive the appetite of mortals, O accursed hunger for gold?’), or it would if Statius were an example of avarice, but he isn’t.
    Furthermore, sacra elsewhere in Dante never means ‘accursed’. To make things worse, reggi is ambiguous between ‘drive’ and ‘control’ (somewhat like English constrain, but more so), and per che ‘to what?’ could also be read as perchè ‘why?’. The resulting tangle of ambiguity is very hard to sort out. Did Dante misunderstand Virgil through inadvertence, or on purpose? And if Dante’s text does not mean what Virgil’s does, can he really be speaking, in a Christian poem, of a “holy hunger for gold”? Dante scholars and translators have been worrying away at these two lines for centuries.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    JC: “Et vous, espèce d’homme!” — Does that mean that French has lost the tu of insult? It seems strange to swear at someone and use a V-form all in one breath.
    —- If you would normally address some one as “vous” (as Milou, just like Tintin, would address a strange man), you would still use “vous” for this type of fairly mild insult. Using “tu” here would be GROSSLY insulting, and would brand Milou as less than a well-trained and well-behaved dog.

  65. marie-lucie says:

    “CHIENNE”
    Some time ago I heard on Canadian radio an interview with a French woman journalist who had written a book about the war(s) in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The French title was “CHIENNE DE GUERRE”, which had been translated as “Dog of War”. The translation was a complete misunderstanding. First of all; “chienne” refers to a female dog, so that the right translation should have “bitch”. Second, “chienne de …” is usually followed by “vie”, a feminine word (hence the female dog). But the idiomatic translation of “chienne de vie” is not “bitch of life” but the well-known English expression “Life’s a bitch”. So “Chienne de guerre” (“guerre” is also feminine) should have become “WAR’S A BITCH”.

  66. Oh, man, what a mess of a translation. This is what happens these days; as we say around my house (influenced by a grandson): “Nobody knows, nobody cares.”

  67. David Marjanović says:

    one of the early Tintin albums

    Not a very good guide to modern usage.
    That said, I haven’t read enough Titeuf to tell how much has changed. 🙂

    Does that mean that French has lost the tu of insult? It seems strange to swear at someone and use a V-form all in one breath.

    Nowadays, in Core But Not Necessarily Standard Average European, the V form means “adult and not related or very familiar”. To drop it from insults to people who fulfill these criteria requires an extra step of thinking that is unlikely to occur in the heat of the moment and, indeed, hardly ever does. (But M-L is right that it would increase the power of the insult.)

  68. michael farris says:

    I used to have a theory (strongly disagreed with by various native speakers of the languages in question) that using a V form in an insult could add an extra layer of contempt. That is, you’re implying that you’re extending all the respect they they deserve when you call them a deranged hippopotamus or whatever.
    Nice theory, but those damned facts keep getting in the way.

  69. rootlesscosmo says:

    There’s also chienne to characterize a certain kind of (usually female?) face, though I’ve never known just what kind.

  70. 1-The exchange in an early TINTIN album Marie-Lucie refers to is in LES CIGARES DU PHARAON, page 15, eighth square (Geek? me? nah, what an idea…)
    2-David: considering how many French-speaking children learned to read through reading TINTIN (raises hand), I think it can be seen as slightly more reliable as a guide to modern usage than its age might indicate.
    3-Marie-Lucie: over the past five years or so I have noticed that the quality of French-to-English translations, in anglophone Canada, has fallen spectacularly, and I am convinced that the use of computer translation, by journalists who are unaware of its limits as a tool, is (at least in part) to blame.
    4-CHIENNE, in Quebec, is also found in an idiom AVOIR LA CHIENNE “to be frightened”.

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