Faire smashy-smash or fucking shit up? The complications of bilingual profanity

Il est interdit de faire smashy smash. It is forbidden to fuck shit up.
Il est interdit de faire smashy-smash.
It is forbidden to fuck shit up.

In the summer of 2013, long before Strong Language was even a glimmer in anyone’s fucking eye, I snapped the picture above on a street in Montreal. I encountered it near Concordia, but I’m not sure where the sticker itself came from: google suggests that it’s been stuck in at least two other places which also look like they could be Montréalais. And when this blog finally came around, I finally remembered it and knew I had a fucking opportunity.

First of all, there’s the sociolinguistic context of Montreal bilingualism, where even unofficial signs are often in both official languages: I’ve spotted homemade bilingual signs looking for lost cats, requesting that bikes not be chained to private railings, and declining flyers in mailboxes. In a city where over half of people are bilingual, one language might suffice, but if you speak both and you’re used to seeing both around, why not make your own signs bilingual too? 

But as a Montreal bilingual myself, I’m also intrigued by the interplay between the two versions. I’m not sure which one was written first, but they’re not really translations of each other. Sure, “il est interdit de” is pretty much exactly “it is forbidden to” but “faire smashy-smash” isn’t an obvious equivalent of “fuck shit up”. In fact, when I first encountered the sticker, I was confused about its intention until I considered both versions together. I ended up interpreting the combination “faire smashy-smash/fuck shit up” as approximately “vandalize things, protest loudly in the streets, break things, mess with others’ property”, but where does this meaning come from?

Separately, I’d say they mean quite different things. For one thing, “faire smashy-smash” alone isn’t necessarily especially violent. “Faire” is the verb “do/make”; smashy-smash is pretty obvious but the reduplication and diminutive make it rather cute — I’d be fine saying it of a child demolishing sandcastles. And “fuck shit up” most idiomatically means “make mistakes”. “I fucked shit up last night” is more plausible to me with the interpretation that I drunk-dialed an ex, picked the wrong bar, or maybe got into a messy fight, whereas if I want to make it more clear that I was causing property damage, I’d rather say “I fucked with shit last night” (Which — what the hell, English prepositions?)

The other thing though, is that it would really have been quite easy for the sticker-creator to make much more exact translation equivalents if they had wanted to. On the English-to-French side, there are a plethora of unique Québecois swears, and while I’m on the more anglophone side of bilingual, so I don’t always completely trust my intuitions on Québecois swears, I do know that none of them sound like “faire smashy-smash”. For example, one of them, décalisser, gets translated “fuck up something” in the relevant Wikipedia article:

Mon tabarnac jvais te décalisser la yeule, calice: “Décalisser” means to fuck up something; “yeule” comes from the derived noun “gueule” which refers to an animal’s throat, in a harsher way. The whole sentence means “motherfucker I’m gonna fuck you up as fuck.”

You could also use the verb foker, which is a Québecois borrowing of English fuck although it’s less offensive in French. Or even if you want to keep smashy-smash, most swears are amenable to just being tacked on at the end of the sentence. The lack of any swears is pretty tame as a translation equivalent when the English version includes both fuck and shit.

On the French-to-English side, I’m nearly positive that “faire smashy-smash” is actually borrowed from English. It’s not just that English has had the word smash since the 1700s, it’s that -y as a diminutive is an English thing, not a French thing. And furthermore, native French words don’t end in the letters “sh”: you get the same sound in French using “ch”, and you generally need an “e” afterwards if it’s at the end of the word. (See, for example, the French word cloche “bell” which English borrowed as the name of bell-shaped kind of hat.) If French had “faire smashy-smash” natively, it would be spelled something more like “faire smachie-smache”. So in this case, for a more direct equivalent, the sticker-creator could have used “smash things up” or even “smash shit up” as the English version.

But together, the English swears make the French “faire smashy-smash” less about innocent fun, while the French verb gives us a more concrete interpretation of the English “fuck shit up”. And it’s not only a sticker that could only have been created by a bilingual person, but it’s also one that you really need to be bilingual to fully interpret.

Fucking smashing.

58 thoughts on “Faire smashy-smash or fucking shit up? The complications of bilingual profanity

  1. ReelCarina April 21, 2015 / 11:42 am

    Bilingualism & code-switching is so damn fascinating! Thank you 🙂

    Like

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