Merde! “Emmerder” les emmerde

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: 

  1. Why is it emmerder and how do you use the word in conversation?
  2. How did news sources in other languages translate it?
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“Christ fucking shit merde!” On the variable power of multilingual swearing

In my mid-teens I spent a few summer weeks in beautiful Brittany on a school exchange. With our French peers my classmates and I eagerly exchanged more than just grammar lessons, swearwords being among the most popular items of cross-cultural education. I tried out all the new swears I learned (and did the same when I learned German), but my awareness of their social nuances remained crude. The internet hadn’t happened yet.

As the years passed and my fluency in these languages declined with disuse, I seldom resorted to their swears – the emotional gratification was limited, and I didn’t feel authentic enough. I had im-fucking-postor syndrome. But I never forgot the feeling of swearing in a foreign tongue, the impish appeal of going native with these exotic and tantalising taboos. The phenomenon is especially interesting because swearing, linguistically speaking, is neurologically unusual.

Which brings us to multilingualism.

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