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I'm not a French speaker, but I find myself with a question about the French language. I have recently encountered multiple independent sources (movies, books, etc) in which French-speaking characters insist that profanity in French is much more... something that in other languages. Elegant, maybe? Expressive? That it is in some way better than, and more importantly different from, profanity in English.

For example, in The Matrix Reloaded, the Merovingian makes a point of saying that cursing in French is like "wiping your ass with silk," and has a whole mini-monologue about it. Similarly, in the Timeline-191 series of novels, a character in Quebec mentions that he finds English profanity distasteful because it centers around bodily functions, implying that French profanity does not.

I've run into this idea several times in several unrelated places, enough to where it seems to be referencing something real (and not just the personal opinion of a single character). Is this simply an example of French being highly regarded in general, or is profanity in French somehow different from profanity in other languages?

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    Presumably, most of your sources are English? It's just a stereotype; that doesn't make it real. tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/… However, profanity words can differ among languages significantly. As mentioned in the answer below, French has profanity related to bodily functions, but in Quebec French in particular profanity is commonly related to religion. – sumelic Sep 25 '15 at 14:09
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    Maybe it come from the fact that, in french, we have a lot of curse word compare to english. We can also combine a lot of them together to form a long phrase of insults. – Sir_Glancelot_du_Lag Sep 25 '15 at 14:13
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    I think French & its native speakers' great ability to discern contextual nuances permit more ways to take relatively innocent, albeit impolite, phrases to the level of vulgarity, if not profanity, not by boringly adding “the fuck” to the “polite” version as in my native language but by cleverly changing operative words from polite ones to ones that are only vulgar in the 'right' context: “Get the fuck out of here”/“Shut the fuck up” vs “Sors d’ici”=“Casse-toi/dégage d'ici” & “Ferme-la/tais-toi”=“[ferme]Ta geule.”(but they're also good at stringing the 'bordels' & 'putains' as needed!) – Papa Poule Sep 25 '15 at 17:13
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Swearing in Quebec-French is... special.

The words originate from religious artifacts, but nobody in Quebec utters any of these words thinking anything religion-related. Besides nobody says "tabernacle".

What's so great about them is that, a bit like the English F-word, any of the Quebec-French swear words can be (and are!) used as nouns, verbs, adverbs and pronouns - and combined with each other in much colorful ways; usually the longer the sequence, the better the "relief" and the stronger the effect:

Sacrament d'esti d'câlisse de tabarnak de sans-dessein d'morron d'crisse de twitt de marde!

Like Circeus said, one can keep stringing them as long as they have breath available - it's the way the words flow and string together and accumulate and build up into a verbal climax-grade relief (seriously.. I can't imagine saying just "ouch! putain!" if I hit my thumb with a hammer) that makes Quebec-French swearing the way it is.

Now, that's for the outrageous kind.

There's also the mild kind, where the swear words are used pretty much like punctuation; seems to me that's closer to how English swear words are used.

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No, there's nothing inherently special about French profanity. It's just a reference to the fact that many people consider French to be one of the most beautiful languages, and therefore even its "ugly words" are beautiful.

a character in Quebec mentions that he finds English profanity distasteful because it centers around bodily functions, implying that French profanity does not.

That's nonsense, there's plenty of French profanity related to bodily functions.

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    Not in French Quebec profanity though. In France French, I'm with you. But all swears in Quebec French are derived from religion, not any kind of bodily function ("tabarnacle" became "tabarnak", "ostie" became "esti", etc) – Patrice Sep 25 '15 at 18:27
  • @Patrice, que fais-tu de "Va don' chier" et "Maudite marde"? – Bernard Masse Sep 26 '15 at 0:17
  • @bernardmasse vrai. Tu vois j'y pensais pas vraiment. Bon point. Tu dois admettre par contre que la majorite vienne de la religion (meme ta marde doit etre maudite ;) ) en general quand je pense a sacrer en francais, ca tourne plus autour des sacres.l religieuz – Patrice Sep 26 '15 at 0:20
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I always thought that what the Mérovingien referred to was the capability of French to string together a whole bunch of swearwords into a single noun phrase(1). THAT is what "rolls off the tongue" rather than anything related to the meaning of the words. You can keep going almost indefinitely. My father can keep stringing them as long as he's got breath available.

I don't get the feeling that you can easily and naturally string more than two or maybe three English swearwords the way French does without requiring some form of enumeration.

(1) Although by the end of the one he utters it's more an insult than a swear: I don't think enculé de ta mère, although extremely vulgar, is normally considered a profanity

  • Though I suppose you can use different forms of the 'F-bomb' in a lengthy string. But it does get tedious. – Wayne Werner Sep 25 '15 at 21:15
  • That doesn't explain "wiping your ass with silk," though. The image that evokes for me is using something beautiful to do something ugly. – lkl Sep 26 '15 at 14:45
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In the movie you speak of, the Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) says :

Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d’enculé de ta mère.

IMDB fails at properly quoting this (it is not motherf....., but rather of your mother). It is the preposition de which allows all this striging into a single noun phrase; and this is a common thread with both France and Québec. It's there in English too with s.o.b. and p.o.s. (son/piece of (a) ...).

The lexicon of the sacre québécois is well documented and grounded in its history, just like any usage. The topic, and difference with the France counterpart, is often stereotyped indeed, and as someone else put it, it is certainly not like one deals exclusively with religion and the other with bodily functions. In France they also have this rich tradition for the religious related swear words in literature; nom de dieu is one such expression. In the quote, you can easily recognize the words God - whore - dirt - shit - idiot - f...er/ed - mother ; in English the f-word can replace all intensifiers too etc. so you could (technically) have: You goddamn dirty f...in' s.o.b.. There is no noticeable preposition linking in between components which would separate/showcase them and create the encasing and rhythm you find with the quote in French. Lexicon, however interesting, is overrated, and this is mostly about syntax in my opinion.

  • The use of the preposition de to string together all those nouns (which kinda seem like adjectives to me) is probably the reason why french cursing like this sound's so interesting. It's just something different and doesn't sound like lining up a lot of "bad" adjectives in front of a noun (usually your mother :> ). – wullxz Nov 14 '16 at 11:52

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