La bombe d’F

grasse de phoque

A wave of Americanism has been sweeping through Paris over the past few years, from le street food (which, finally, is actually being served on the street) to a desire to remake Paris in the image of New York. Or more to the point, Brooklyn.

Brooklyn in Paris

I don’t quite know where this came from, but I do wish it would stop. Granted, in the US, we have our share of “French-style” kitchen gadgets (most of which I’ve never seen in France) and croissan’wiches (which I am now seeing in France), but hopefully we still have enough international goodwill so the French will overlook some of our infractions. Yet a new trend has been sweeping through France and I’m not sure it’s building much goodwill in the other direction, in spite of how benign they might think it to be.

(Speaking of good-will, I should probably let you know that even though I am too bien élevé, or well-raised as they say in France, and don’t have a potty-mouth, there are some pictures that use a 4-letter word in this post. So if that might be offensive to you…and I have to admit, they make me wince as well – although I don’t have a choice because they’re all around me – you might want to not scroll down or click after the jump, and skip this post.)

I was listening to some music the other day from a French radio station called FG, and the “FG” used to stand for Fréquence Gay which was owned by the French government (confirming all those fears about the French to certain political elements outside of the country), for those party-loving residents of the Marais and elsewhere. I’m not sure how important sexual orientation is to choosing a radio station, but it’s one of the stations on my playlist because the “trance music” is good for when I’m working on recipes and don’t want to be too distracted. Well, that’s my story anyway.

FG Radio

When I lived in the states, my background “music” was E! television, in the pre-Kardashian years. It had everything you wanted in a television station; supermodels, irreverent shows that made fun of other shows, documentaries about the demise of backbiting 80s bands, scathing fashion gossip, and talk shows hosted by fabulous drag queens. The best part about it was that you didn’t have to pay attention. You could finish stirring your crème pâtissière or roll out your tart dough, then resume watching a few minutes later, realizing you haven’t missed anything important.

So how thrilled was I to find out that E! is actually here in France and for the low price of just 99 centimes a month, could be part of my cable line-up? I could not subscribe fast enough and was thrilled beyond belief – until I realized that it was dubbed (VF, or version française) and I realized it’s no fun to watch housewives in New Jersey bickering unless you can hear their actual New Jersey voices, rather than the voice-over of a hysterical Frenchwoman trying her best to imitate them. Which f@&king annoys me.

Monsterpiece

I normally don’t swear when I write, and find it odd when people do in cookbooks. But after hearing that Radio FG has been recast with a new name, I’m learning that there’s nothing wrong with dropping the F-bomb in France, which apparently adds a certain je ne sais pas, or F$%ckin’ French Touch, as it’s now being dubbed in some quarters, to whatever la bombe d’F touches.

Just the other day, I was lost in happiness as I stirred a batch of buttery caramel, simmering away on the stove. But instead of the standard announcement of the name of the station that’s spoken between songs, the Radio FG announcer jolted me back to reality to let me know that I was no longer listening to just any old FG music, but that it was now F@#king Good music.

dinner

But it’s not just hit radio where the F-bomb can be heard, or found. I don’t think people cuss in French cookbooks like some do in America, but the Omnivore food festival has created a whole page to promote their F#%king Dinners, so you can keep f*%king track of them. (I did notice that the name is rechristened for use in other countries, so there must be some inkling out there that it’s a word not to be tossed around lightly.) And call me friggin’ odd, but being from San Francisco, if someone invites you to come for a f%$king dinner, well, let’s just say dining might not be the top activity of the evening.

fcking dinner night

Even though I didn’t get invited to the F$%king dinner in Paris, just like I never got invited to any of those wild dinners in San Francisco either (so thanks to Hélène for letting me use her snapshot of the menu), I’m becoming more confused about how the F-word has taken off in France. They obviously haven’t taken a clue from the probably charming town of F$%king in Austria, that finally get fed up and considered changing its name. (And with a population of 104, obviously they don’t know the actual meaning of the F-word.) I don’t know if people are going to start stealing signs (and WiFi signals) in France, but I see the word appearing more and more on fashionable apparel. The other day I saw a nice-looking chap on the métro with a sporty little cap on that had the F-word printed all over it in big block letters.

And it’s a trend spreading to other fashion choices not just on public transportation, but on the streets. If you ride a motor scooter, you can let the folks behind you know how you feel. And one of my neighbors has even decided to christen his (or her) WiFi connection with the f-word, which is a word usually reserved for when you don’t have an internet connection. So it’s nice to see irony is still alive and well in la France.

wifi

It’s said that you should speak another language, one that’s not your native language, for at least ten years before you start swearing in that language. And I’d say that is pretty good advice because I went to a presentation for a high-end food product the other day that was in English, by a presenter for whom English was not his first language. I counted him dropping the F-bomb at least seven times during the thirty minute demo. The first time I chuckled uncomfortably, just because everyone else did and I was trying to be polite. Not that I have any problem with cuss words (and after working in restaurant kitchens for over thirty-five years, if I did, I wouldn’t have lasted thirty-five seconds), but he was nicely dressed in a fashionable suit, was well-groomed, and representing a high-end brand that’s f$%king expensive. And the contrast was startling.

graisse le phoque

Discussing it with a friend here, we guessed that non-native English speakers don’t realize the gravity that particular word has. It’s not like saying “Drat!” or “Oh heck”, but it’s a pretty loaded word that carries so much weight that it was (and maybe still is) the criteria for automatically giving a film an R-rating. And although I giggle when Romain says “phoque“, the French word for seal (such as my trusty tin of seal oil for waterproofing my shoes), I’m still shocked when I walk down the street to see it in a store window, or hear it on television, or used to publicize a gourmet food event. I supposed someday I will stop being so shocked when my delicate ears hear the F-bomb, or PH-bomb, used so freely and just accept it as normale. And not give a fig about it.


155 comments

  • I’m as shocked as you are so I don’t know why I couldn’t stop laughing reading through the post! What the F%$# is up with these Frenchies?

  • You are so right!

  • I wonder could we be related? My mothers maiden name was Lebovitz.

  • I was working in France during the DSK debacle. In one of several resulting discussions about the sexual harassment, a (French) friend referred to me as a “slut.” It took me a moment to realize that she didn’t understand that this was offensive, because her entire context for when and how and among whom “slut” is used was Sex and the City. I then had to explain that the series’s dialogue was not representative of how American women generally spoke to each other. Similarly, could the prevalence of “f**k” now be the spawn of some particular popular HBO series?

  • I agree with you…,but I did laugh my way through this post….

  • I’m myself french, but living in Brussels, and had not realized my compatriots at home had started to use the F-word so freely in ads. Although I might not blame the dubbed movies for it, but rather the fact that a great majority of the young generation is now learning english through MTV programs and streamed series (which is totally fine by me – we only has the BBC radio program my old english teacher would play us on a tape recorder – and I’m not even that old!). Hence, they might not realize not everybody is speaking like Snooki from Jersey Shore, or McNulty from the Wire: it’s similar to people learning Japanese through mangas and realizing when arriving in Tokyo that they don’t know how to communicate in a non-familiar way.
    And on a last remark, it’s true that if you want a good laugh in Paris you can always scroll down the list of available wifis: as I noticed when visiting my friends lately, you’ll always have a nice “paspourtoiconnard_78″ or “merdeàceluiquilira_234″.
    Thanks for the very entertaining post!

  • When I lived in Italy (about 5 years ago) my flatmate’s boyfriend used to wear a belt that said ‘F***ing Criminal’. He was a very fashionable guy and always looked great but it was so weird when he was dressed smartly for work with that belt!

  • I guess the French see us swearing in films and tv and think all Americans talk like that? Many of the British films I see show people swearing constantly but that must not be the case either? We’re all vulnerable to the media….

  • I think this is hysterical. Hopefully it’s a trend that will go away. Although, I went to Dublin 3 years ago and the f-bomb was quite freely given away. I remember being shocked. But at least my eyes weren’t assaulted by advertisements!

  • Americans are a little more uptight about swear words but blaming their reaction to the French misusing ‘f#king’ (I won’t be so coy as to use asterisks) on American puritanism isn’t good enough. I’m Irish, and though we probably swear a lot more than Americans do, we know when not to, and using it in printed promotional material is absolutely out of the question.

    The French preponderance for swearing à la anglaise just comes across as unwieldy and unclassy. Swearing in English takes an immense amount of skill and understanding of the language, which few French people – even those who can speak English fluently – possess. They would be best advised to leave it out altogether. This occasionally foul-mouthed Irishman doesn’t find the French using ‘f&$k’ offensive, just incredibly annoying.

  • Everybody is saying that the Americans don’t swear very much. How come their films are full of swearing. Not just the F word but the other most disgusting word.

    • I’m not that sure American films are full of swear words, though they may be noticeable in some films more than others. I think if you did a careful survey of US films, you I presume the ‘other word’ you refer to is the ‘c’ word, which is very rarely heard in American films, mainly because Americans, unlike other English speakers, don’t use it much.

      In any case, it may be true that younger French people pick up swear words from certain Hollywood films (and rap music too) and thus have little conception of how inappropriate it is to use them indiscriminately.

  • I saw a film the other day, a very violent film, that used the F word almost every second word where it wasn’t needed. Quite honestly most of the British films that I like are slow ones or based on films
    I also watch NCIS which manages not to swear. Haiwai 50 ditto. So why?
    Yes it was the c word.

    • That’s my point. It was a violent film, aimed at an adult, probably male audience, hence more swearing. As for British films, there is *way* more swearing in them than in American films. Maybe not in the likes of Downton Abbey or Merchant Ivory films but try watching Sexy Beast, Trainspotting or any Ken Loach film and you will notice the difference straight away. It reflects the fact that the British generally swear a lot more than Americans do (or it is at least more general throughout society).

  • I don’t watch those sort of films anymore. Downton Abbey and Merchant Ivory are much more my thing since I got to my great age. My favourite TV shows, to be honest, are Monk, Haiwai, Alias and NCIS. You see how highbrow I am. I’ve been away from my England for so long that I don’t know the swearing habits of the British.

  • Bit like the British and the c-word. Still sweary but not NEARLY the status of “Worst thing you can say to or around a woman, EVER” that it carries in the US.

    • It’s hardly analagous though – the British (and Irish and Australians and Kiwis) all know how offensive it is, both to Americans and non-Americans. Besides, the word has been around since Chaucer’s time, so it’s not like it’s an American invention. The French use English-language swear words without *any* concept at all of how offensive they are.

    • Do the British really use the c word a lot? It’s a word I’ve never used in all my 69 years.

  • I have noticed the same trend in Egypt. Generally speaking, in the media/public contexts (as opposed to say, walking in the street) swearing in Arabic is believed to be shameful and heavily frowned upon (especially around women). Authorities censor profanity in Arabic by law and slander and libels suits are thrown around Cairo on a daily basis. But in English, well that’s a different story, for some reason people can enjoy ‘f$%k’ and the whole pool of English profanities casually, and its to a greater extent socially accepted. Quite ironic if you ask me.

  • This is so shocking it’s funny. What happened to France’s ban on English words to protect and preserve their language? Maybe the government should come up with a Frenchified word to replace this f***ing one… any good suggestions?

    • There is no such ban. The Académie française simply drafts alternatives to words borrowed from foreign languages, and recommends they be used. The recommendation is not legally binding however. The only legal obligation is that when a foreign language (not just English) is used in an ad, it must be translated into French by way of a subtitle or an asterisk. Though the law probably does cover restaurant livery and menus, few people would bother with it unless it were a big chain.

  • This is one of the funniest things I’ve read in weeks!

  • I wonder when the French will sensationalize the word ‘biches’ which I saw as a description card on a female deer at a natural history museum in Southern France…I can just see it now ‘f$&king biches’ dinner event!

  • I’m English and will happily admit to swearing a lot. They’re just words (to me). Having lived and worked in a few countries, picking up swearing is a useful barometer of a culture. I can now swear in Chinese, French, Dutch, Arabic, German and more. What I like is the differences in offense different words for largely the same thing have.

    In Dutch, for example, the equivalent of the “C” word is incredibly cheap. Or at least where I worked.

    As for French: Serge Gainsbourg. That is all.

  • I think here is SF we should start hosting “PUTAIN! Dinners”.

  • OMG. I’m watching a light British film where the F word had been gratuitously thrown around and the, all of a sudden, the C word turned up. I actually gasped

  • If you speak like that all the time, what do you have left to say when you really need vulgarity? I don’t speak that way – I think it shows a poverty of imagination to limit your vocabulary to just a few words, the liberally sprinkled-around f-bomb.

    I certainly know how; I grew up in a house full of brothers, and a Navy fighter pilot father, and then spent more than 20 years working in an Emergency Room. There’s not much I haven’t heard. I save those words for really heavy-duty distress, and so they have real power (for me, if not for the people around me.

    And even then, depending on circumstances, they might be subvocals. I know when and where, and also when and where NOT to use such language.

    Savvy309

  • I think most of us know where and when not to use vulgarity just some people aren’t bothered.

  • I just watched a German game show (Die Pyramide, based on the US game show $64,000 Pyramid). One of the contestants said “sh*t” (in German) twice and “f#%k” (in English) once. The moderator, when describing hand gestures, said that he would not flip the bird (in German: “den Stinkfinger zeigen”). The conditions of civil discourse are quite different in Europe.

  • If I recall correctly, in the original play “The Marriage of Figaro” from the 18th Century there is a whole scene about saying “goddamn.” Shaw’s “Saint Joan” has French characters using “goddamns” as a synonym for “British.”

  • One the other hand, I know elderly Jewish women who would be shocked to hear “schmuck” or “putz” used in conversation. But they have entered American mainstream English, at least in New York.

  • Actually I’m more shocked at the shoe cream made from seal fat, a thing which i thought belongs to the past, like the 19th century. Those animals are protected, and if they are not they aught to be…

  • Thank you. This is awesome. I’ve been thinking this since I got here two years ago and had the same reaction to the Omnivore dinners. I feel like there’s a missing adjective. Like, at the very least it should be F&#%ng AMAZING Dinners… That would at least make sense. And I say this as a huge fan of Colin Nissan’s decorative gourds (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/its-decorative-gourd-season-motherfuckers). Everything has its time and place.

  • Lots of yiddishisms are being taken by all sorts of people. In England a lot is/was used by taxi drivers as most of the drivers, years ago, were Jewish.

  • I think when you say “Americanisms” it’s a little bit of a misnomer because it implies that it’s actually prevalent in the culture here… Aside from rap/hip-hop, I really don’t see or hear swear words very often, especially not in print or advertisement… I live in LA and travel to SF, NY and Chicago often. I think it’s more the French taking an aspect of American language and having some fun with it since swear words in other languages just don’t carry the same weight as swear words in your own language. It’s just jarring to you (and to any English speaker, probably) because you actually feel the weight of the word. My other language is Russian and when I hear Americans saying Russian curse words, it’s extremely jarring to my ear and very shocking, but just a bit of fun to them.

  • I think B#&%ch is next!

  • A little late in the conversation, but the day after you posted this topic I was in a cave in Bergerac waiting for my husband to choose a cognac. Nonchalantly I gazed down at the crate of wine at my feet. It held bottles of a Jurancon red labeled “You F–k My Wine”. I kid you not!