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I heard a dialogue in a movie between a teenage daughter and her mom, which rummaged through the daughter's purse and found some condoms:

  • Daughter: Tu as fouillé dans mon sac?
  • Mother: On s'en fout de ton sac! C'est quoi ça?

I know that "se foutre de" means "to not give a damn", but why does the mother uses "on" and "en" here? "on" means "we" or an impersonal subject, but neither of them make sense here. "en" is a pronoun which means "de qqch", but the complement of "se foutre de" is explicitly mentioned in the sentence" de ton sac. Is "on se foutre de" a fixed expression?

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On works with both meanings here:

  • On can indeed be the impersonal pronoun here. "On s'en fout" should be understood as "nobody cares".
  • "On" can also be understood as "we" in this context, as "you and I": the mother says "we don't care about the purse", which actually expresses the idea "you and I should not be talking about the purse, I want an explanation about something else (ie the condoms)".

S'en foutre is not a fixed expression. Yet, it is often used as the short form with the pronoun "en", especially as spontaneous reaction (je m'en fous !). But, if you feel that it wasn't clear enough and you want to specify what the "en" refers to, or put the emphasis on it, you can add the complement (grammatically, it is then rather a repetition of the complement, and strictly speaking, should be preceded by a comma in the written form):

Je m'en fous !

Je me fous de ta nouvelle voiture.

Je m'en fous, de ta nouvelle voiture !

Je me fous de ce que tu penses.

Je m'en fous, de ce que tu penses !

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This construction is pleonastic in reason of the use of "en"; LBU 14th ed., states this fact p.876 § 680 c) 4° and gives the following examples.

  • J'EN AI bien ASSEZ DE la campagne, et je n'y remets plus les pieds !... (BALZAC, Pet misères de la vie conjug., PL, p. 241.)
  • J'EN AI ASSEZ DE ces cocos-là. (FLAUB., Éduc., III, 3)
  • J'EN AI ASSEZ DE ces bavardages ! (Ac. depuis 1980.)
  • J'ai dit que J'EN AVAIS MARRE des embusqués de l'arrière (DORGELÈS, Croix de bois, XV).

    It is a usage that belongs to the spoken language, as I see it;

The use of "on" is ambiguous here; it is normally used to replace "nous"; if this were so, it would mean that either the mother and the daughter do not care about the particular attitude of the mother regarding her daughter's belongins, which is not quite intelligible since the daughter does care or that "nous" means some other group in which the daughter is not included, and that is not a definite group, it remains undefined. In either case we are dealing with incertitude. A third possibility, that is that which consists in using "on" as a replacement for "je" is extremely unusual. In the end one does not really know, except for the fact that the mother is in the group. Another interpretation for the ambiguous usage of "on" is that the speaker intimates the person he/she is talking with to abandon their concern as he/she do not share it, imparting strongly to them the idea that he/she is not going to take this concern into account; that is also not said in a definite manner but remains a likely possibility. Because of the vagueness of this type of enonciation, I think it should be avoided.

  • Couldn’t ‘on’ in this context refer to people in general and mean something more like the English ‘Who gives a f*** about your bag?’ (not , perhaps, the best choice of verb, in the circumstances)? – Tuffy Sep 12 at 15:48
  • @Tuffy "On" can't be referring to people in general as this would make little sense: should people in general care about the mother behaving in a somewhat uncivil manner towards her daughter? Maybe that's what is required considering the daugher's behaviour and people in general have to remember that the mother is responsible for her child's acts. Therefore there is no concern of great importance, such as for instance if the mother were beating her or confining her into a narrow closet. There is then no logical reason to invoke their judgement (1/3) – LPH Sep 12 at 17:20
  • @Tuffy as the daughter is not doing that in the first place, which thinking of it, if she did, would seem strange. In another context, that could be the only possibility, for instance in the context of a daughter complaining that people are jealous because of her nice bag, that having for consquence the reply, "Who gives a damn about your bag?" from her parents; but in this case in French, it is not likely that "people in general" would be rendered by "on" unless the person talking included himself/herself in the lot; (2/3) – LPH Sep 12 at 17:21
  • @Tuffy this not being the case, "les gens " or "ils" would be more likely the chosen form.It seems that you'd find personally the use of "Who gives a hoot/a damn/a fuck/…" in the OP's sentence meaningful though, but if I wouldn't have questioned its use had I ever heard it in this context, now that the problem is being suggested I don't know whether in English also it might not be somewhat inappropriate. (3/3) – LPH Sep 12 at 17:21

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