As Anne and Sylvie arrive for dinner, Auguste, recovering from a bad cold, greets them with exquisite politesse: “Pardonnez-moi si je ne vous baise pas, mais j’ai un rhume” (Forgive me if I don’t f**k you, but I have a cold). Quoi ? This provokes a generalized fou rire (hysterical laughter). Although my Dutch husband speaks French fluently—well enough to teach his university courses in French—he innocently has mixed up the noun baiser (a kiss) with its verb homonym, which is as vulgar as its four-letter English translation.
He’s not the only one. There’s a worse story. Une Américaine was hired to teach first-year French at an exclusive private school in Dallas. An enthusiastic beginner, she had T-shirts made for the French Club that said “Baisez-moi, je parle français”. A French native who spotted the students wearing them in a shopping mall, called the school. I’m not sure the young teacher’s contract was renewed.
How could she know? Le Grand Robert dictionary, prudishly and misleadingly, gives as its first definition for baiser : “to kiss”, accompanied by several examples of what’s kissable: the cheek, the mouth, the Bishop’s ring, even the Pope’s “mule” (white satin slipper). At the bottom, there’s a remarque: “Baiser is no longer in decent usage, see definition two”, i.e., the one we use today. In fact, since the 12th century, baiser has referred, if sometimes ambiguously, to sexual intercourse. To say you want to plant a kiss on someone, use embrasser, donner un baiser, or even faire le baisemain, a gesture taught to young boys of good family: on meeting an older woman at home (never outdoors—who knows why?) they pick up her hand, and appear to sniff it politely. They don’t touch it with their lips.
What Auguste meant to say was that he wasn’t going to faire la bise (or donner un bisou or biser—to kiss on the cheek). But la bise itself gets complicated: just one smack, or one on each cheek? Three is common. Some people always give four. And whom do you kiss? These days, even men and heads of state can faire la bise when they meet.
Words like putain (prostitute), bordel (brothel), foutre (another f-word), merde (s**t) etc., vary in intensity. Questions of registre (level of language) are tricky. Are you talking to a friend your own age? A stranger? A respected dignitary? Is the expression you are using populaire or truly “peuple” (lower class), un juron (swearword), un blasphème, une insulte or merely grossier (vulgar)?
Originally considered obscene, many words now also have weakened or altered meanings. “Foutre le bordel”, for example, means to cause havoc. Putain was considered so unspeakable by many that Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 play was often written La P….. Respectueuse. If somebody calls you “pute”, be insulted. But putain said in exasperation —“Oh putain, I forgot my keys!” — is a mild expletive like “dammit”. It has become so meaningless that it functions almost as punctuation. Kids and adolescents shorten it to “ ’tain ”. Their mothers desperately suggest euphemisms: purée (mashed potatoes), punaise ( thumbtack — or bed-bug) much as US mothers in the 1960’s replaced four-letter words with “sugar”, “fudge”, etc. The utterly well-bred, in reverse snobbery, sometimes use profanity for shock value.
Intense emotion can excuse grossièreté. Are you agacé (annoyed), énervé (agitated), or merely murderously enraged? Some years ago Nicolas Sarkozy (Président de France 2007-2011), made headlines by saying to an électeur (voter) who repeatedly refused to shake his hand, “Casse-toi alors, pauvre con!” (Then get lost, you pathetic jerk). “Jerk” is actually a bit milder than con, which (blush) refers to female genitalia. Or does it? English newspapers translated con as “arsehole”. Re-translated into French, that’s trou du cul, which is very offensive, whereas con is used constantly, by just about everybody, to mean “idiot”. Interestingly, another voter was fined 1,000 euros for waving a sign with Sarkozy’s now famous phrase, because the Presidency felt… insulted !
Life’s unfair. The president can be vulgar and respectable newspapers can quote him, but I’ve noticed that native speakers are frequently shocked when foreigners use profanity. So even if you know gros mots (dirty words), you might try mastering the clever comeback instead. Jacques Chirac, Sarko’s predecessor, leaving church one Sunday, was approached by a heckler yelling “Connard !” (“Schmuck!” ), a specifically masculine variation of con, similar to the feminine variation connasse.
The ex-president brilliantly replied: “Enchanté, moi c’est Jacques Chirac” (“Delighted to meet you, mine is Jacques Chirac”).