Words that shock in different cultures

Cultural Insights — By on December 19, 2006 at 10:41 am

We all know, of course, that people in various cultures can have vastly different ways of communicating.  But different ways of swearing?  Well, as this recent article from the Washington Post points out, when French-speaking Canadians get angry, they tend to spew religious words that could have been taken straight out of Catholic Church service.

“Oh, tabernacle!” The man swore in French as a car splashed through a puddle, sending water onto his pants. He could never be quoted in the papers here. It is too profane.  So are other angry oaths that sound innocuous in English: chalice, host, baptism. In French-speaking Quebec, swearing sounds like an inventory being taken at a church.

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad.

This article amused me.  Not just because of the different curses across cultures, but because part of my childhood suddenly came to life.  You see, my late grandparents are from Quebec and my father grew up speaking French at home.  Hence, when I was young, I was led to believe that the French term for tabernacle was a swear word.

In terms of culture, though, the real interesting question here is why different cultures choose these words as curses.

“When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you,” said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer …”In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms.”

And the words that are shocking in English — including the slang for intercourse — are so mild in Quebecois French they appear routinely in the media. But not church terms.

“You swear about things that are taboo,” said Andre Lapierre, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ottawa. In the United States, “it is not appropriate to talk about sex or scatological subjects, so that is what you use in your curse words. The f-word is a perfect example.  In Canadian French, you have none of the sexual aspects. So what do you replace it with? You replace it with religion.”

So remember, the next time you’re in Quebec, try not to use the t-word.

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  1. Bill from Whitinsville says:

    Hi Bob–Thanks for your email on this. Ken’s follow up and your cousin’s reply were very funny. I have heard many of these French-Canadian curses before but I never really thought about it. I will pass this along to my parents.

    Do you get many hits to your site from non-relatives and friends? Do you get paid by the advertisers? Not trying to be nosey, I just find this all interesting. How did you get this started?

    Merry Christmas (with no swear words) to you and Lisa. Say hi to her for me.

  2. Bill from Whitinsville says:

    Go Nomads!!

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