question re: swearing in France 1889-1890

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question re: swearing in France 1889-1890

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dec 15, 2009, 6:15pm

I'm not sure if I should be posting here, but I couldn't figure out another place. Feel free to point me toward another group of it is more appropriate.

First - my question is about swearing so if that offends you, please don't read this post.

I just read Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick. It is a historical fiction novel, so it takes place in France in 1889-1890. The characters seemed (to me, anyway) to swear in a completely modern way.

The characters used the following profanities:

fuck (as in "fucking failure"; "fuck off"; "fuck you")
pissed (as in "I'm so pissed at him")
screw (as in "you want to screw me")

I'm thinking this is totally out of character for that time period and it detracted from the book a lot.

I don't think "fuck" and "screw" were even in common usage at that point, particularly the phrases "fuck off" and "fuck you". Am I incorrect? Also, if characters in France were going to use the term "pissed", it would be much more likely to be the British version (meaning drunk) than the American version (meaning angry), correct?

Can anyone shed some historically accurate light on this for me?

Redigeret: dec 16, 2009, 4:03am

Well, your post surprises me mightily, because anyone knows how polite and delicate the French are—except in Monty Python's Holy Grail when King Arthur asks to enter Guy de Loimbard's castle...

The old-fashioned way to translate "fuck" in French is "foutre". I believe this verb could be used in the late 19c., but only in lower classes of the society, because it was very rude at that time. It is now used in expressions which, still vulgar, have lost their primary inensity, such as: "J'en n'ai rien à foutre" ("I don't care a damn") or "Fous-moi le camp" ("sod off"). (I believe that my translations into English are rude, whereas the French equivalents are almost colloquial now.)

There is no strict equivalent of "pissed" in French. Rather than liquid images, the French usually employ more solid ones. As for "screw", perhaps the old-fashioned verb "baiser" could be used at that time, but still in the lower classes.

In the main, even in Huysmans's late-19c. naturalist novels, I cannot remember having seen such a vocabulary. You seem to have bad readings. ;-)

dec 16, 2009, 11:28am

Complaining about the actual words used seems sort of odd since supposedly they were speaking French and wouldn't have used those exact words.

dec 16, 2009, 7:46pm

The book is written in English even though the characters are French.

My question has to do with the modernity of those terms. I believe (possibly incorrectly) that they are too new to have been actually used in those times.

The characters that swore were Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and a french prostitute. So does that make a difference? Were prostitutes likely to use that kind of language back then? And, I don't know what to make of Van Gogh and Gauguin...

As I read the book, the swearing seemed very jarring and surprising in light of the way the characters said everything else. It seemed glaringly out of line with the rest of the book. Most of the talking done by the characters seemed in line with the time of the book.

If the author was thinking about how a real french person would swear, would she choose the above words to be her version of the "translation"?

I'm not actually complaining. Just stumped and wondering how true to life the verbiage really was for those times.

dec 16, 2009, 8:04pm

An online etymology site I found shows:

fuck: written form attested from early 1500s (
pissed, as in angry: too new for time period of your story, first attested in 1946, although piss dates back to late 13th c. (
screw, as in copulate: from around 1725 (

Redigeret: dec 17, 2009, 4:17am

#4: I believe that Van Gogh, Gauguin and prostitutes could use for instance the word "foutre", which was part of Apollinaire's or Sade's vocabulary in their erotic, sado-masochistic, and pornographic works. So why not "fuck" since grammargodness found out that it entered the English vocabulary so long ago?

Perhaps what you find jarring is the fact that these words are frequently used in the book you are speaking of. I too would be disconcerted in that case.

dec 17, 2009, 9:56am

I'm just mystified as to why you are concerned about the two different meanings of pissed when the characters would presumably using the French equivalent anyway.

Redigeret: dec 17, 2009, 4:34pm

Thanks, all - very informative...

I think "pissed" is the one term that seemed so out of place - possibly "angry" would have been a better choice. I thought the American meaning, particularly, was way too new for the 19th century - it just didn't fit with the rest of the language of the book.

It was NOT my favorite book....

Thank you all so much.

(The etymology links are great!)

dec 17, 2009, 6:01pm

"Historical fiction" can vary from totally modern attitudes and language slopped all over totally unconvincing, poorly(if at all)-researched supposedly historical background to really great true-to-history attitudes and language for that place and time as far as research can show, filled out so skillfully with fictional elements that you can't tell fact from fiction even if you're well acquainted with the period. Since I'm one of the latter, I'm not easy to please, much as I love good historical fiction. Of course, the 19th century is a lot later than I'm really interested, but even so, the language strikes me as out of line.

Redigeret: dec 20, 2009, 5:54pm

Van Gogh used the French equivalent for "fuck" in all its many contexts and with its attendant different meanings quite often in his personal letters. Those to friend and fellow painter Emile Bernard are particularly blunt. I would imagine that he used equally colorful and forthright language in his day-to-day discourse with close friends and associates.

I have to admit that I'm unclear on what exactly the original poster is objecting to here. Is it the presence of "swear" words at all (presuming that educated 19th-century men did not swear or use coarse language amongst themselves-a presumption belied by many personal letters and diaries from the period) or is it to the English equivalents the author chose to use. While I guess one could argue the use of "pissed off", the other terms seem perfectly reasonable to me given what we know of Van Gogh and Gauguin's personalities and real-life language use.

dec 25, 2009, 6:47pm

I have no problem with swearing at all. I'm fine with it. I use it myself quite often. ;)

My objection was to the manner in which the characters swore, which to me, seemed altogether modern. I just think the author could have done a better job of integrating them into the old style language that she used for the characters.

If you happen to stumble upon the book, browse through it and maybe you can see what I mean...

feb 24, 2010, 10:35pm

fig2's question about about the usage of fuck as an intensifier interested me, and because I didn't see any dates for that particular usage, I'll take the liberty of sharing what I found in the OED.

Fuck, as a verb meaning "to fornicate, to copulate" has been around since at least 1503 (as grammargoddess said):

a 1503 Dunbar Poems lxxv. 13 Be his feiris he wald haue fukkit.
1535 Lyndesay Satyre 1363 Bischops‥may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit.

Still, in these cases, fuck(ing) is used as a verb, or a deverbal adjective, not as an intensifier. The examples the OED gives of the use of fucking as an intensifier in various profane contexts start with a 1922 citation from Joyce's Ulysses:

1922 Joyce Ulysses 580 I'll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king.

But most citations are from the 1960s onwards. Examples of derived uses like How in the fuck should I know (Burroughs, 1959) and Come on, for fuck's sake (Holbrook, 1966) are given from dates much later than the 1890s. Combinations such as fuck about and fuck off are cited from 1929 and 1944 onwards, respectively.

That seems to confirm that modern-sounding uses of fucking were indeed not used in the late 19thC.

However, given the typical time lag between actual usage and that usage showing up in writing (especially with taboo words or coarse language), the following dictionary citation does suggest that the word was around back then, especially in the lower classes or in extra-vulgar speech:

1893 Farmer & Henley Slang III. 80/2 Fucking‥Adj., A qualification of extreme contumely. Adv. Intensitive and expletive; a more violent form of bloody.

The next citation illustrating this usage is the one from Ulysses, quoted above.

In other words, the use of intensifying fucking, in the way fig2 described it, does seem to have been around in the 1890s, though it might not have been used by everyone. Still, it doesn't appear to be "totally out of character", if Van Gogh was given to colourful language, as marietherese said.

feb 25, 2010, 6:02am

I like this citation from Ulysses. Can it also apply to a queen?

feb 25, 2010, 9:23am

Of course it can.

Here's a couple more interesting quotes from the OED:

- 1680 Rochester Poems on Several Occasions (1950) 30 Through all the Town, the common Fucking Post, On whom each Whore, relieves her tingling Cunt.
- 1707 see frigging vbl. n.. c 1888–94 My Secret Life III. 228 This house had but eight rooms, and two mere closets to let out for fucking. Ibid. VIII. 307 She wa a magnificent bit of fucking flesh, but nothing more.

Isn't it funny how coarse language continues to fascinate people?

Redigeret: feb 25, 2010, 10:18am

These citations constitute the big difference between the OED and the Shorter OED. (I've just cheked my SOED, which gives only a dry(*) definition of fucking, and no citation at all.)

(*) If I dare to use this adjective here.

feb 25, 2010, 10:08am

I'm reminded of that Blackadder episode where Edmund predicts that the first thing people throughout the ages will do with dictionaries is look up naughty words.

feb 25, 2010, 10:18am

Too funny. LOL

feb 25, 2010, 1:25pm

Very, very interesting. Thank you for all your info. All of this is just fascinating!

feb 25, 2010, 4:58pm

Words like 'fuck' are recent to the OED, and it may be that not all of the reading of citations has been done yet. Also, as suggested above, the word may not have been in print very much until the mid-twentieth century; oral usage from very far back could easily go unremarked.


feb 25, 2010, 8:35pm

You might find this post by LanguageHat interesting. It talks about the first attested cases of the word fuck. The very first one seems to have been in friggin' code, in an otherwise Latin text.

And Mr.Durick is right about these words being recent to the OED: the wikipedia article tells me that the OED did not incorporate fuck until 1972; idem for cunt. I know that shouldn't surprise me, but still.

feb 26, 2010, 3:57am

The wikipedia article is an incredible gold mine! It provides too much info. I'm going to print it to enjoy it this week end.

feb 27, 2010, 9:33pm

In that case, I heartily recommend the article's talk page. A perfect illustration of people's abnormal behaviour around taboo language.

feb 27, 2010, 11:36pm

I think that the suggestion on the Wikipedia talk page that the word comes from Latin faceo via German is interesting. English 'make' has had sexual connotations in my lifetime.


feb 28, 2010, 10:30am

And so does do. Latin Facere, like french cognate faire, covers both English "do" and "make". One Chinese translation programme offered "fuck" as standard translation for the Chinese gan,which in one sense meant "do", with hilarious results.

mar 2, 2010, 11:08am

For us English, 'pissed', meaning angry, is a curious Americanism. For us, 'pissed' always means drunk. For angry we use 'pissed off'.

This American usage is as strange for us as the related expression: 'You're shitting me', which seems for us to invite 'on' before the 'me'. Otherwise, as written, the sentence implies that the person addressed is the nominated unpleasant human waste.

Such things may seem unimportant, as the meaning is clear to the educated, but when deciding between translations, I would defnitely tend to avoid those which are so distinctively transatlantic.

mar 2, 2010, 11:17am

These words were in use, but in low social classes, and certain areas - it would have been used by some artists ('poetes maudits'), like Verlaine, Rimbaud, and most certainly Beaudelaire (the 'Serge Gainsbourg' of the time).

apr 15, 2010, 9:46am

I recall reading a story by Maupassant in which a character uses the word "fichtre!", meaning, of course, "foutre!"

apr 20, 2010, 8:24pm

Mrs Bear, a native English speaker, sort of, first visited France in the late 1950s where she was surprised and delighted to see what she termed "white glove ladies" using the word "merde" quite freely and casually. WGL's in her town in New York State or anywhere in the US at that time, as far as we knew, did no such thing.

apr 20, 2010, 8:46pm

Mr. Bear, the Quebecoise light of my life in the 1960's refused to tell me what she meant by "espece de con" (pardon the lack of diacritics), but it turned out to be common.


apr 22, 2010, 9:40am

There's a feeling among English speakers that

"The French don't care what you do actually; as long as you pronounce it properly"

apr 22, 2010, 3:30pm

My understanding is that there are a few languages that non-native speakers are not allowed to pronounce properly. French is one of them.


apr 22, 2010, 4:44pm

31> You'd think that they'd cut us some slack then, given the impossibility of doing it right.

apr 22, 2010, 5:08pm

Some of the French do. They have that Gallic chuckle that reminds us that we are cute when we overreach.


apr 22, 2010, 7:41pm

Funny about the French.

If you don't speak at all, they think you're a dummy.

If you speak a little and make an effort, they are very friendly and supportive.

If you begin to speak fairly competently they become EXTREMELY um "helpful" by pointing out every niddly point of grammar and usage that you're fubbing up, you silly foreigner you!

Ones only recourse is to revert to the uniquely French bi-labial plosive indefinite, "Pfffffttttt!".

apr 23, 2010, 3:58am

Remember Gallic eyes are spying these threads.

apr 23, 2010, 8:40am

Well then, I wish the French would learn how to pronounce Maugham, for a start.

jul 19, 2015, 12:12pm

In the 100 French books to read before dying, there is a particular one Pantagruel which will respond to 33, 34 and 35 concerns, particularly Book III Chapter XVI page 172. Granted it was written before Fig2 requested time period, around 1532. 1889-1890 French characters would have been very aware of the literary roots of their own language.

jul 19, 2015, 5:24pm

The French they are a funny race,
The French they are a funny race,
The French they are a funny race,
They fight with their feet
And they fuck with their face --
Hinky dinky parley-voo!