On December 10, 1896, the actor Firmin Gémier stepped onto the stage of the Théâtre de l’Œuvre and uttered the first word of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi: “Merdre!” The audience immediately lost their shit. For fifteen minutes, they screamed, shouted, whistled, and argued with each other, all because an actor in an avant-garde theatre had uttered a word perilously close to merde, which is French for “shit.” They were, you could say, pissed off.
On January 5, 2022, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, sat down with for a Q&A with readers of the newspaper Le Parisien and said, among other things, “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.” It was duly reported. His opponents lost their shit – or at least made indignant noises. The world press, for their part, gained their shit – or anyway one bit of good shit to draw readers like flies. The provocation was in both the wording and the sentiment: Macron said he really wants to emmerder the unvaccinated, and you can see that same merde in the bowels of the word. He didn’t mean he wants to shit on them, though – in English, we’d more likely say “piss them off.” (And it should be pointed out that Macron did say “pardon the expression” before using the term.*)
The world, and France, has changed quite a bit in 125 years; from being a word an actor can’t come close to saying on stage, merde has become a word that is just a bit impolite for a politician to say in public. Likewise, newspapers and other media sources that decades ago could never print “piss” can now use it in a headline – the first page of Google results I get (YRMV) for macron piss off brings up headlines from the BBC, The Guardian, Canada’s Global News, NPR, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), France 24, Reuters, CNN, and The Independent (UK).
Not that everyone was so gleeful in reporting it, of course. The New York Times dourly reported “Using Harsh Language, Macron Issues a Challenge to the Unvaccinated” – it did translate Macron’s quote as “The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” but added “using a French word that is more vulgar” and, further down, explained further “Mr. Macron studiously used the word ‘emmerder,’ which is translated literally as ‘to mire in excrement’ and means to ‘annoy’ or ‘to give a hard time to.’”
There are two particularly pressing questions in regard to this news:
- Why is it emmerder and how do you use the word in conversation?
- How did news sources in other languages translate it?
So… why emmerder?
Shit has a slightly different range of figurative uses in French than in English: if something really annoys you, you can say “Ça me fait chier!” (“That makes me shit!” – note that while the noun is merde, from Latin merda, the verb is chier, which traces back to Latin cacare); if you want someone to go away, you can say “Va chier!” (“Go shit!” – not quite as strong or coarse as “Va te faire foutre!” which means “Go fuck yourself!”). Along with this, French has different ways of forming verbs; where English just takes a noun and slaps a “VERB” label on it, French adds affixes. Where in English we can use bottle to mean “put something in a bottle,” for instance, in French it’s embouteiller, from en (“in”), with n assimilated to m before the b, plus bouteille (“bottle”), plus the verbal suffix (for the infinitive it’s -(e)r; others are used for other conjugations). And so if you replace the bottle with shit, you get emmerder, literally “put in shit” (note that in English we can’t use shit this way, because for us verbing follows function, and while a bottle is a container, shit is not; if I say “You’re shitting me,” I don’t mean you’re putting me in shit, I mean you’re directing [bull]shit at me).
This is, plainly, not polite language. But it’s not quite right to think that merde is exactly as vulgar in French as shit is in English. Where actors in English typically say “Break a leg” before a performance, for instance, in French it’s “Merde,” and it’s not unduly untoward. My Nouveau Petit Robert dictionary (petit is relative; it’s a hardcover of almost 2,500 pages) marks emmerder as “fam.” (meaning “familiar”); by contrast, faire chier is “tres fam.” (“very familiar”). And, plainly, while emmerder is impolite enough for Macron’s opponents to decry it, it’s not so impolite that he hesitates to use it in public, on the record. For shit’s sake, Les Emmerdeurs was even the title of a YouTube Originals series about the Résistance during World War II (tagline: “La Résistance avait besoin des héros, ils ont eu les emmerdeurs”; that’s “La Résistance needed heroes, they had pissers-off” – probably “pains in the ass” is better, but the translation is awkward either way). And the lawyer for Charlie Hebdo, Richard Malka, has just come out with a little book titled Le droit d’emmerder dieu (The Right to Piss Off God).
The other thing to know about emmerder, if you like using vulgar words (and if you don’t, why are you here), is that its ambit of use is greater than that of piss off. Yes, you can use it to mean “annoy,” as in “Ton chien m’emmerde” (“Your dog pisses me off”). But you can also use it to mean “inconvenience oneself,” as in “Je me suis emmerdé à cuire cette saloperie” (“I really busted my ass cooking this shit”) or in the negative as “Je ne m’emmerde pas avec ça” (“I don’t give a shit about that”). And you can use it to mean “bore,” as in “Ces bêtises m’emmerdent” (“I’m bored with this bullshit”), or to utterly discount, as in “L’ancien gars? Je l’emmerde” (“The former guy? I don’t give a shit about him”), or to dismiss someone, as in “Je t’emmerde, je vais lire quelque chose” (“To hell with you, I’m going to go read something”).
What’s that translated as?
The inevitable stumbling block for worldwide news media is, as always, that different languages (and different varieties of a given language) use different things as vulgar language, and have different attitudes towards vulgarities. Let’s take a quick look at how Macron’s comment has shown up in news sources in a few different languages.
Spanish, as it happens, has a perfectly serviceable verb: joder. As El Mundo of Spain quotes Macron, “A los no vacunados, tengo muchas ganas de joderles.” It happens that joder comes ultimately from the same Latin root as French foutre, and can often be translated as “fuck over” or just “fuck.” But not all Spanish-language news sources wanted to go that route. La Jornada of Mexico City, for instance, preferred “tengo muchas ganas de fastidiarles,” using fastidiar, which translates as “annoy” or “pester” with no vulgar overtones.
Italian doesn’t have a single verb that suits. But Italian news sources that took notice of Macron’s pronouncement had a few translations. Sky TG24 had a headline “Voglio fare arrabbiare i no vax, è la mia strategia” (“I want to annoy the no-vax, that’s my strategy”), but quoted Macron in the article as saying “Con i non vaccinati, ho tanta voglia di rompere le scatole” (rompere le scatole literally means “break their boxes” but really means “break their balls” – a usable turn of phrase in English, but obviously not equally applicable to all). Il Post preferred “rompere le palle” (palle is literally “balls”), and several other news sources went with that, or anyway with “rompere le p…” because it’s a little rude. Rai News was a bit more coy: “voglio davvero rompergli i c…., voglio davvero farli arrabbiare” (we may assume that “c…” stands for culi, “asses,” though it could be cazzi, “dicks”). [Edit: As several people have pointed out, it is in fact short for coglioni, which is a particularly rude word for “balls.”]
In Brazil, Folha de São Paulo went the safe route: “os não vacinados, esses eu tenho muita vontade de irritar” (using irritar, which you’ve probably guessed means “irritate”). But in O Globo, it’s “encher o saco” (literally “blow up the sack,” but that means “break the balls” in this case, and it’s a little impolite).
In Germany, Der Spiegel quoted Macron as saying “Ich habe große Lust, die Ungeimpften zu ärgern” (ärgern translates as “annoy”). Die Zeit put it as “Ich habe große Lust, sie zu nerven” (nerven could be translated as “get on their nerves”). Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had “den Ungeimpften auf den Wecker zu gehen” (that translates literally as “get on the alarm clock on the unvaccinated” but really it’s colloquial for “annoy the unvaccinated”). But Die Welt went with “auf die Eier zu gehen” (literally “get on their eggs,” and you can guess what “eggs” means).
Scandinavian sensibilities are often thought of as slightly less prim. Stockholm’s Dagens Nyheter translated Macron as saying “Jag vill jävlas med de ovaccinerade” (which could be translated as “I will mess around with the unvaccinated” or “I will screw around with the unvaccinated”), and Svenska Dagbladet used the same term: “så vill jag verkligen jävlas med dem.” Copenhagen’s Politiken headlines that Macron wants to “plage røven ud af bukserne på modstandere af vaccination” (which could be rendered literally as “bother the ass out of the pants of vaccine resisters”). Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat translates emmerder as “haistatella” (which uses an idiomatic, colloquial, and rude sense of the verb haistaa “smell” – as in smell shit, smell various genitalia, etc. – in this case meaning, basically, “tell them where to get off” or “tell them to go to hell”).
As to the rest of the world… well, it’s gotten kind of late in the evening, you know? Je ne vais pas m’emmerder avec tout cela. I leave it to our readers to add renditions from the many other languages out there. But I would like to stake the position that any translation that does not reflect its effect as a vulgar word well placed misses the point. Macron was not merely taking the piss; he clearly wanted to be (to use a term common where I’m from) a shit-disturber. And he did stir up some shit – and get some attention!
* For the record, the larger context is this (see the French at franceinter.fr; this is my translation): An employee of a seniors’ home said, “Those people who aren’t vaccinated are the ones who take up 85% of the intensive care units… And, on the other hand, there are people who have cancer whose operations are postponed, who don’t have access to healthcare and who are vaccinated!” Macron replied, “What you just said is the best argument. In a democracy, the worst enemy is lying and stupidity. We’re putting pressure on the unvaccinated by limiting, as much as possible, their access to social activities. In fact, nearly everyone, more than 90%, is vaccinated. It’s a very small minority who are holdouts. How do you make that number smaller? You make it smaller by, pardon the expression, pissing them off even more. I don’t want to piss off the French people. I complain all day about the administration when it gets in their way. No, OK, it’s the unvaccinated who I really want to piss off. And so, we’re going to keep doing it, all the way. That’s the strategy. I won’t put them in prison, I won’t force them to be vaccinated. And so, I need to say to them: Starting January 15, you won’t be able to go to the restaurant anymore, you won’t be able to go for a drink, you won’t be able to get a coffee, you won’t be able to go to the theatre, you won’t be able to go to the movies…”