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. Dave December 30, 2014 / 1:38 pm

    In my idiolect, “fuck shit up” is mainly for property damage, so the English part of the sign makes perfect sense to me; making a mistake would be “fucking up” instead. (34y, grew up in NE US)

    Liked by 12 people

    • neminem February 14, 2015 / 9:11 pm

      I agree with this. If I wanted to say emphatically that I screwed up, I would just say I “fucked up”. If I said I “fucked *shit* up”, I would expect a listener to assume I got pissed and destroyed some crap.

      Like

  2. Rob December 30, 2014 / 1:59 pm

    I agree on the interpretation of “fuck shit up” posited by Dave above, and I think it could be a male generational thing because I am a 34 yo transplanted native Montrealer (from St Leonard, so the Anglo enclave on the French side of town).

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Scott Underwood December 30, 2014 / 5:49 pm

    I don’t know how well known The Simpsons show is in Montreal (or if there is a connection), but “smashy smashy” was used in at least two shows:

    In another episode, Bart says “Smashy smashy” after randomly breaking a store window.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. mario December 30, 2014 / 6:20 pm

    Actually, I think the post is missing some important cultural context for “smashy smash.” For Anglophone radical activists and those who march/do work alongside them–including but not limited to the black bloc–a “smashy smashy” is an action that involves property damage as part of its political content. Typically this damage is strategic and directed at perceived agents of global capitalism like banks, McDonalds, and so forth, or directed at facilities or property of the state; or it is tactical, meant to engage law enforcement in particular ways that facilitate the longevity of the action, or its greater purpose.

    The “smashy smash” (note the dropping of the second y in French) here in Montreal is translated to “fuck shit up” because the audience for the statement are groups of folks who are in a particular activist context. It’s actually not about profanity–the “fuck shit up” is the tell for who the message is directed at, in that “fucking shit up” places the statement on the fulcrum of political strategy/teenage destruction. The sign is, of course, done cheekily, especially with the phrasing “Il est interdit,” which is unlikely to compel much of anyone, much less the anti-authoritarian left. However, because smashy smashies are often the measure of some contention–they often arise in situations where believers in a “plurality of tactics” oppose them in that moment–the tension in it the phrase, for activists, immediately apparent.

    The whole thing does revolve around the sticker as bilingual, as mentioned above. That said, the “Il est interdit” makes me believe this is a tongue-in-cheek joke by someone who generally supports “fucking shit up”–it’s meant to be read in this context as an authoritarian command not to interdict or interrupt the normal state of affairs.

    Liked by 10 people

    • Ann Arquista January 11, 2015 / 6:00 am

      Exactly. It’s bilingual and contextual within the anarchist and activist scene. Really cute use of language here. As a bilingual activist in southwestern US, I’m super inspired by creative use of language to make political points.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Gary December 31, 2014 / 12:01 am

    A friend who lives a couple miles away from me (northern Idaho) sent me this post and I got a laugh out of it. He used to live in Vermont and visited Montreal frequently (though he is not bilingual). I lived in Quebec between 1976 and 1978. I must agree with Dave that the English part of the sign makes perfect sense. Regarding the phrase, « Mon tabarnac jvais te décalisser la yeule, calice.», unless things have changed (for example, the grammarians prevailed in foisting post-French revolution rules on Quebec joual) the colloquial conjugation of “aller” in the present first person would be rendered something like j’vas or jvas (je vas) rather than jvais or j’vais (je vais). Then again, I’m from the Idaho backwoods so what the hell do I know?

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Ace December 31, 2014 / 2:56 am

    Not exactly relevant to the profanity aspect, but for context it may be helpful to know that this sticker is made in the same format, typeface, etc. as a sticker placed on the bulkhead doors of the older Montreal metro cars, saying “Il est interdit de franchir cette porte/It is forbidden to pass through this door”.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Gretchen McCulloch December 31, 2014 / 5:41 am

      Ah, that’s definitely interesting information, thank you!

      Like

  7. Rain, Rain January 1, 2015 / 10:25 pm

    I’ll add my U.S., west coast idio to the lect — it would never have occurred to me that “fuck shit up” would mean “make a mistake.” Rather, I read it as an unambiguous reference to property damage — in this context, as an act of self-aware braggadocio, which would probably be undertaken either on the pretext that the actor felt some animus toward the target (“I will fuck your shit up”), or just as a way of displaying general bad-assery (“I’m here to fuck shit up”). “No one will think you’re a bad-ass if you damage this property, we can see right through that pose,” would be another possible paraphrase.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Sid Chitnis January 12, 2015 / 3:55 am

      I’m no authority on slang but I’d agree with Rain Rain that “fuck shit up” has the very unequivocal sense of some sort of damage to property. That’s how I’d hear it being used in Dallas, where I live.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. HPR January 6, 2015 / 3:23 am

    I’d love to see an entire post about tabernac. In Vermont, close to the Canadian border, we sometimes use it as an exaggerated mock swear (drawing out the three syllables, “tab-air-NAC”). It’s fun to say. I had no idea it was an equivalent of fuck until I read this post. I always thought it came from tabernacle (does it?), and that is part of why it sounds and feels like a silly swearword to those of us who do not hail from Quebec.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. renofailure January 11, 2015 / 8:21 pm

    Ha! I laughed AND learned something. However, as a US resident, I can tell you that “fuck shit up” can & often does mean to destroy. Particularly among rowdy punk-rock types (which I was once). Example: “Let’s get fucked up and fuck shit up!” English translation: “Let’s get drunk and break stuff, even if it is our stuff.”

    Like

  10. Bill Hayes January 11, 2015 / 8:53 pm

    I justify only speakin English comfortable in the knowledge that if learnt another, I would be ignorant in two languages instead of one.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. It happend to me once and it was so exciting. Nice post.

    Like

  11. DiyDaisy January 11, 2015 / 10:27 pm

    I thouroughly enjoyed reading this.😃

    Like

  12. cmmenut January 12, 2015 / 1:43 am

    It makes me wonder if they think people who understand English instead of French might be less educated, therefore they need to use harsher wording. Je comprend les deux et ca ne dit pas la meme chose. En plus, smashy-smash n’est pas francais.

    Like

  13. ninaoneillpoetry January 12, 2015 / 5:13 am

    An anglephone wife to her francophone husband from her couch in their home in alberta “hey Jo, mon tabernac, j’vas te decollisser la face mon collisse! …..pause…….and ya, he’s still laughing

    Like

  14. jaelinpalmer January 12, 2015 / 6:33 am

    Hilarious! Makes me want to visit Montreal just to see the signs. Hate to be redundant, but i also agree with Dave. If my friends and I fucked shit up, we definitely damaged property. If we fucked up, we probably drank too much and then drunk dialed our dads.

    Like

  15. maryhelenc January 12, 2015 / 3:29 pm

    I actually just clicked the link for the hilarious photo, but I learned a lot! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Zoe Taylor January 12, 2015 / 7:38 pm

    Great post! This really made me giggle. I’d love to share this with my sociolinguistics lecturer, it’s pretty entertaining!!

    Like

  17. Mister Creative January 12, 2015 / 10:55 pm

    I think this is about context, not just the discovery of swear words on signage. And I’m not sure what your fucking point is anyway? Semantics or interpretation? You can fuck people up though, but ‘shit’ is normally a belonging. Again, context.

    Like

  18. Oliana January 13, 2015 / 12:55 am

    How totally interesting and no wonder there is SO much lost in translation, coming from a bilingual f/bicultural amily and speaking franglais most of the time, (although I still dream in English) I found this most interesting. Some words are related to history as well like when my son as a teen didn`t want to eat the supper I served and he said he would prefer a bowl of pea soup. His father is French Quebecois and flipped not understanding English and misinterpreted my son`s request. I had to explain that our son was too young to even understand that term.

    Like

  19. Jason Preater January 13, 2015 / 6:20 am

    A Japanese researcher got in touch with me when I was teaching because he wanted to know the prevalence and use of the word fuck amongst children. They were delighted to fill in his questionnaire about when and where they thought it was appropriate to use the word. One of my more creative students added that the word has many different uses that he might not have been aware of and signed off his questionnaire: fuck you, you fucking fuck, you. Nicely combines verb, adjective and noun, I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Willowwisp January 13, 2015 / 11:28 am

    My ex is japanese and he was ALWAYS picking the wrong word. Hahahahaha. Those were the best days. Laughed my ass off and tried to get him to do it again 😈

    Like

  21. Lauren Tate January 13, 2015 / 3:14 pm

    First post I’ve read of yours and I’m hooked! I wish more Americans were as entertaining and BLUNT as you! 😉

    Like

  22. rammkatze January 14, 2015 / 7:22 am

    This speaks to me! Although I’m neither english nor french native speaker, I can speak both (well, a bit of french anyway) and see the need to be bilingual. Thanks for the entertaining post!

    Like

  23. sprytely50 January 14, 2015 / 3:56 pm

    Great read, entertaining and educational.
    With the invention of Franglais however I’d have thought this sign could be turned into a nice ‘One Liner’. Perhaps, “c’est forbider de foker le private propriété”?

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Jessica January 15, 2015 / 9:45 am

    “Faire smashy-smash”, oh I do love French. My favourite word has got to be ‘guili-guili’, which means tickle (although I think chatouiller is used more often).

    Like

  25. artandkitchen January 15, 2015 / 9:49 am

    This is really a funny post! I’m living in a multilingual country as well (Switzerland). It’s very interesting see the interferences between the languages.

    Like

  26. nicktitmus January 15, 2015 / 10:57 am

    From an English (geographic as well as linguistic) point of view, I am aware of the American English usage of shit to mean things, but puzzled by it. Do these comments indicate that US usage is different – subtly- from Canadian? Not sure US English qualifies as English any more. How different is Canadian French from French French?

    Like

  27. mirrorgirl January 15, 2015 / 4:24 pm

    Are you bilingual too? I am half German and half Norwegian. Nothing is more fun than playing with words:)

    Like

  28. conceptacassar January 15, 2015 / 8:32 pm

    I never thought I would hear a sentence like that in French. I’m definitely introducing that one to mainland France.

    Like

  29. SmartnSultry January 17, 2015 / 7:16 pm

    Reblogged this on SmartnSultry and commented:
    Off Topic Perhaps…But So Awesome! Smash smash my friends!!! HAHAHAHAHA!

    Like

  30. thingsnottosaytome January 22, 2015 / 9:49 pm

    This is brilliant, so interesting to find examples of unusual language use. Could it be appealing to a wide audience and maintaining an element of la politesse?

    Like

  31. bekitschig January 25, 2015 / 10:58 pm

    If langugage influences our thinking, being bilingual definately does too. Every connotation could mean sth more. Or does it?

    Like

  32. mtltechwriter January 27, 2015 / 1:00 am

    This typical “franglais” slang in action indicating once again that language no matter which one, is continuingly evolving. As a Montrealer, it is part of our daily “enlightment” seen all over the place.

    Like

  33. theclevelandcroissant January 27, 2015 / 5:34 pm

    This was hilarious. Im perpetually messing up things that I try to translate too literally from English to French. I tried to ask my host mom in France if she was excited for her vacation with her husband and I used the verb exciter….FAIL

    Like

  34. M.H January 29, 2015 / 4:50 am

    I loooove montreal. Language barriers can be a bitch though

    Like

  35. Kelsey February 8, 2015 / 12:03 am

    One of the best parts of be able to speak multiple languages is being able to create a dialect that only people who know both languages can understand! I love that sticker.

    Like

  36. lindathompson2014 February 17, 2015 / 2:06 am

    As a bilingual Montrealer too, it always makes me laugh that the most popular English swear words relate to bodily functions while French swearing uses religious articles (tabernacle = chalice; hostis = communion host, etc.). Either way, “c’est genre full bon ton article”.

    Like

  37. sixmoisenasie February 19, 2015 / 2:12 am

    As a native French-speaking Montrealer, I’d just like to weigh in on the proper use of “décâlisser”. I believe it is used way more often as an intransitive verb meaning leave or “get the hell out” and used for someone else – not yourself.
    e.g. T’es mieux de décâlisser au plus sacrant. Décâlisse mon écoeurant.

    As a transitive verb, it does mean break, fuck up, all manners of damage/destroy.

    The tréma accent ” ^ ” should be used to indicate that the “a” should be pronounced like “raw”, not “at”.

    As for “faire smashy-smash”, it might be a nascent expression. But the fact that you’ve seen a total of 2 such stickers, I would file it in “inside joke” rather than franglais.

    Thanks for the fun read!

    Like

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