Mouthing off

I am trying hard to ban the use of putain in our house.


Non-Francophones, this delightful swearword is the French equivalent of shit or fuck, but is literally translated as whore.

Now, I am not a puritan.  I don’t have any objection to merde or any other English equivalent: au contraire, I have very fond memories of college years where two of my closest male friends took me in hand and taught me about the art of swearing without blushing.

But I can’t bear putain as an expletive and I am going to start a (ok, potentially very lonely) crusade to get rid of it.

#plustain – who’s with me?

Now, French people will heartily disagree with me.  Putain-this and putain-that, it’s everyday language for women and men alike, young or old, whatever your social background – check out Step Four of this excellent YouTube tutorial:

So when they use it, no, French people are not referring to whores: it is the equivalent of an exclamation mark.

Ben alors: who cares?

Well, frankly, my dear, I do (give a damn).  Here goes.

‘Whore’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as follows:

Capture d’écran 2015-08-19 à 13.35.40

(Interestingly, Merriam-Webster also include men who ‘engage in sexual acts for money’ under their definition, but I for one have never heard whore being used to talk about a man.  Have you?)

How do we say “whore” for a man?


Do you think French people say putain because gigolo just isn’t quite as satisfying?

(Yes, in part.)  But also because there is no real male equivalent.  Even though of course male prostitutes exist and in some settings might even be the majority, in general sex workers are still overwhelmingly female (70-80% according to this article on US prostitution).

So whore = female-specific insult.

And society generally doesn’t disapprove of a man who sleeps with lots of women (la preuve: if ‘whore’ is the judgmental term for a woman selling sex, where is the equally damning name for the ‘clients’ buying it?).

So whore also = pejorative and sexist female-specific insult.

In a nutshell, therein lies my aversion to putain. 

The Telegraph countered this recently, saying it doesn’t matter that there is no male equivalent: men suffer their own abusive terms that women do not, such as being heckled for being weak or submissive.

But I don’t really understand their point.  Surely that in itself is confirmation of the dreary predictability of gender-role insults? And even if some of us might feel sorry for the guy who gets called pussy-whipped by his friends, is it because it’s never nice to be a situation when your partner is walking all over you, or rather a sense of pity that his masculinity is compromised by such un-virile behaviour?

(Oh and, yes, there is a male equivalent to whore: it’s stud.)

I have tried to make my point with the husband by saying that every time he (inadvertently) adjoins whores and miseries-slash-excitements of life, he must be prepared to explain the word to his daughter.

Jeez, you’re thinking, enough already! What a nag! Thank god I’m not married to her!

Hélas, my poor (henpecked?) husband is married to me, so he’ll just have to put up with thinking about what comes out of his mouth.  Le pauvre !

Well, no, actually.  Intelligence surely is about understanding the connotation and consequence of the words you use. Isn’t that why we all crouch down in front of our three-year-olds when they’ve innocently just issued a clanger, to hurriedly explain that some words are only for Big People?

Using words you don’t understand – or worse, don’t realise are intrinsically offensive – means those words become common currency (as putain has), and inadvertently reinforce ugly perceptions or inequality. You can argue that putain is nothing but a crutch-word, as this other blog does, but unfortunately it’s still used in its literal form, with entirely different meaning: tap it into your search engine, and you’ll get something more than a load of surprised or angry looking faces.

Thinking about what comes out your mouth is important too because swearing is still (seen as) acceptable for men but less so for women (is that why there are more female gender-specific swearwords than male ones?).  Believe or not, there is not a huge amount of free-access literature on gender and profanity, but for example An Investigation into Differences between Men and Women’s Speech found men responsible for 80% of swear words.

That’s not to say that the issue is about women doing more effing and blinding: there are many indignant articles pointing out how swearing is not big or clever for anyone, and how feminists should not make the mistake of copying bad male behaviour in the quest for gender equality. In this way Carol Bartz, the former CEO of Yahoo!, was criticised as much as she was praised for her potty-mouth.

I don’t know what I think about that. People who have a sort of voluntary Tourrettes for expletives are usually teenagers, tedious or very angry about the world, so I agree that swearing isn’t an automatic way of being cool – far from it.

Instead (and irrevelent to whether or not you think more or less swearing is the way forward) what is more interesting à mes yeux is why it’s apparently more acceptable for men to swear more, a point Bartz made herself (before being fired):

Source: the Guardian

Source: the Guardian

I tend to agree.

Enfin bref. All of that said, I do get the obsession.  In terms of pure delights of getting your mouth around it, and of a satisfactory way to paraphrase a strong emotion, there still isn’t much that beats a good putain de bordel de merde when the train driver regretfully informs you that you will be stuck midway between stations for the next hour given, say, leaves on the line.

But just remember what it means, is what I’m saying.  I’m pretty sure people would look twice at you if you rendered it into respectable English: Frédéric, dear fellow, this seems to be a rather lacklustre pleasure house we have come to.  Let us retreat back to the street. 

Alright. I’m done lecturing.  To finish, here’s a peace offering, straight from Matrix Reloaded:

I’ll leave you Anglophones to google the translation for that one.

In the meantime, I’m continuing with my #plustain campaign.

And I don’t give a gigolo what anyone thinks.


4 thoughts on “Mouthing off

  1. Sara

    Putain, what got up your nose ;-)? By the way, plenty of English equivalents that are just as bad – “cunt” being one.
    On there being no term for male clients of prostitutes, don’t forget the female clients – not all one-sided, nothing’s black and white.
    Love the Matrix Reloaded video, classic. Thanks for sharing!


    1. zefword Post author

      Thanks, Sara! I don’t have a problem with “cunt”, as it happens; it’s as anatomical as balls or dick, really 🙂 glad you enjoyed the matrix clip. A classic!


      1. Ray

        Kate I don’t like putain, but cunt for me is worse if that is possible. Cunt is the ultimate insult in the English language, whereas dick,cock, balls have an almost gentle and endearing sound. Interesting also that encule is a far greater insult in French than bugger in English. So I do agree that I find putain offensive, there are equally offenstive insults in our own mother tongue.


  2. raphaelB

    Hi there.

    As many other french guys, I’m a big user of the word “putain”.

    I believe we do have some excuse : “putain” is never used towards a person, not like “cunt” which is a direct and ugly insult. “Putain” is an interjection. It makes a big difference. Calling somebody a “putain” is awful and sexist, while swearing “putain!” might be more casual than you think.

    When I swear “putain”, absolutely no image of an actual putain come to my mind. When you swear “shit !”, do you picture a poop ? Probably not. There is probably as much sexism in the use of “putain” as scatophilia in the use of “shit” as an interjection.

    A propos, where does “putain” come from ? Latin : putidus, meaning “rotten, stinky” or putere, a verb meaning “to stink”. Yep : in vieux français, “put”, or “pute” meant “stinky”. Then it became “putain”, a very nice way to talk about female prostitutes. Maybe french people used to swear “put” in the early middle age, perhaps before the word “putain” even existed ?

    Many french interjections start with “pu” : purée, purin, punaise, putréfaction…There might be a pattern here. Who can tell if “putain” was the first and original one ? I don’t know. Speech specialists could probably tell us more about the massive use of the sound “pu” in french interjections. It’s probably not only caused by sexism (I hope).

    Soooo…yeah. One word, two different grammatical categories. An ugly sexist insult in one hand, another “pu”-something interjection in the other.

    And I have to go because my wife want me to turn off the computer.

    See ya !



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