Prior to my move to Paris, you might be forgiven for ever thinking that I grew up in a Christian family from a small town in the South. Now that I don’t have to drive anymore, my swearing has dramatically decreased. The idiocy of that BMW driver who cut me off on the interstate off-ramp or the timidity in turning during the yellow light at the intersection by the SUV driver obviously talking on the phone would send me into apoplectic bouts of road rage. A sailor could reasonably suggest that I might want to dial it back a bit.
My parents never swore. Or rather, they did, but they used the kind of bland Protestant curses such as “shoot” and “crap” that had all of the heft of a bag of cotton candy. A childhood of listening to mom’s Barry Manilow albums, as well as the much more rigorous enforcement by the three television networks’ “Standards and Practices” censors protected my ears from hearing anything vulgar. It is still a recurring holiday joke with my husband, who grew up on a farm as a nonpracticing Catholic, for us to sing along with the bland but earnestly festive Ray Conniff singers “Oh By Gosh By Golly, It’s Time For Mistletoe And Holly.” For me, the worst insult I could muster to call my brother when he was being annoying was that he was “a poopy dumb-dumb.” Yeah, that really taught him.
My evolution with swearing began in high school, timidly at first, as I learned the many possible permutations of f***, but continued to stumble over the proper delivery, adhering to a grammatically correct usage of keeping the complete gerund suffix “-ing” instead of the more authentic “-in’.” I might as well have had “nerd” stamped on my forehead.
By college, however, I felt more comfortable letting loose with a string of epithets among my friends for select professors. As the alcohol flowed, so did the crude poetry of my choice of insults. Fast forward to driving as an adult in Los Angeles, and my speech became a fire hose of expletives.
So when we moved to Paris, speaking French on a daily basis, I realized that my ability to vent my frustration through swearing had been reduced to sounding like my eight-year-old self, the equivalent of calling someone a “poopy dumb-dumb.” The quip of “pardon my French,” which I used to use in the United States to excuse away an insult, was now a limp-wristed explanation as to why I couldn’t properly express what I was looking for in a hardware store (“I am looking for a long tool that has the plus sign at the end to turn something … (blushing) … pardon my French”).
Thankfully, the French have a whole menu of swear words to partake of, and the more genteel, archaic terms that might have been used by a grandmother back in the 1950s are still commonly used, just like “shoot” or “crap” in America, so one can use “mince” in place of “merde” in polite society. It gives me the tiniest giggle to overhear someone while I’m standing in line somewhere utter “mince.” Likewise, whenever “purée” is cried, instead of the violent “putain,” I smile, remembering how I used to let loose with a curse of “fudge” back in my parents’ home.
In 2019, the winning contestant in the Miss France pageant let out a mild swear of “sapristi” during the live broadcast on national television when her name was announced. This “holy cow” of an exclamation, a favorite of the cartoon adventurer Tintin from the 1920s onward, made a tour on French social media. One Twitter post teased that the new Miss France was apparently 87 years old. Another joked that she sounded like President Macron talking to his (much older, former school teacher) wife, Brigitte. “Sapristi” made a cultural comeback, popping up everywhere like some sort of retro-chic hipster accessory.
As I have grown older and calmer, I have found it more civilizing to rely upon the old-fashioned swear words. The bourgeois blasphemies of generations past resonate as a sort of educational marker for those in earshot. Whereas my older gay friends still balk at hearing me use the French equivalent of “faggot” (pédé), they will grin when I remark that someone is dressed like a bigre. And if, after my second glass of wine, I exclaim that this particular bottle was fichtrement good, the clutching of one’s pearls is done for camp effect, if not ironically.