Feeling My Age

Getting older has its drawbacks – but it's a lot better than the alternative.

Swearing In French

January 26, 2012 Feeling My Age

Ecole Des Roches, Verneuil-sur-Avre

At age 14 the sheerest chance led me to spend a term at an elite single-sex boarding school in Normandy called École Des Roches. Three years of learning the language back in England hadn’t prepared me for this sudden immersion in French As She Is Spoke. Or rather was spoke by sons of the privileged classes back in early 1965.  The argot I acquired is probably as out of date now as the public school slang (“Yaroo you blighters!”) of Billy Bunter comics, but the memory of it is vivid as ever.

The universal catch-all swear word “merde” was somehow more colourful and flexible than the anglo-saxon “shit”. As when Frank Wayolle got expelled for smoking and shouted from the window of his departing taxi “Je vous enmerde tous!!”. Somehow the nearest English equivalent (I shit on you all) is nothing like as eloquent.

Especially beloved of seniors supervising  other boys was  foutre le camp – ie “fuck off” but in usage and impact closer to “bugger off”.  The prefect supervising prep might routinely shout “fous le camp, Cabrol” or “foutez-moi le camp dehors” when sending one or more fellow pupils out of the room. Whereas in English “fuck off, Cabrol”  or “get the fuck out of here” would be a lot more severe.  “Get off my case” or “leave me alone, all of you” would be rendered as “foutez-moi la paix”

Other favourites: “ta gueule” (shut it) “tu me fais chier”  (you’re pissing me off) “j’en ai marre” (I’ve had enough) “dégueulasse” (disgusting) “cassepied” or “ça me casse les pieds” (boring or annoying) “putain!” (literally “whore”, but used as an exclaimation – like a low-level version of the way we might say Christ! or Fuck!) and “se faire engeuler” (to get into trouble with, or shouted at by someone – usually a teacher or parent).

“Con” was literally “cunt”, but in usage much milder – denoting someone dumb or stupid, hence “conard” (a fuckwit) – interchangeable with “couillon” (dickhead). And, though not actually swearing, “Ça suffit déjà!” (enough already!) and “Ça va pas, non?” (do you bloody mind?) were brilliantly colloquial. Alas, 47  years later whatever accent and vocabulary I acquired back then are mostly gone.

But – if required – I can still tell an unruly french schoolboy to fuck off.


  1. Lloyd Jones on March 15, 2013 2:03 pm

    I earn part of my living by teaching English to French kids on visits to the UK, and I’ve myself acquired a ‘diverse’ colloquial vocabulary. All of the above are still used plethorically with great enthusiasm.

    I love that I’ve managed to acquire a conversational level of French, which my students often don’t know/expect of me. Once, a student was describing the toilet they’d just visited as “Dégueulasse” to their friends, when I enquired (in English) if the bathroom was to their suiting. They smiled gently and replied that it indeed was; “Fine thank you”. I smiled knowingly…

  2. feelingmyage on March 16, 2013 10:59 am

    Hello Lloyd – lovely to hear from you ! An what unexpectedly polite and tactful French children :-)

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