Adventures in French Canada

Although it is perhaps a rather delicate subject, one thing I think that visitors to Québec need to be warned about is Québécois profanity. In my first month or so I noticed that people’s speech was full of what appeared to be religious words, and my first thought was, “What devout people they are!” but then it dawned on me that these were swearwords.

Unlike in Standard French, where swearwords tend to centre on sex and excrement (such as merde shit), Québécois profanities (known as sacres from the verb sacrer to consecrate) are words and expressions related to Catholicism and its liturgy. They originated in the early 1800s when people became frustrated by the tight social control exerted by the Catholic clergy.

The most common and the most profane of the sacres is tabarnak – tabernacle, but I also heard (h)ostie – host, maudit – damn, câlisse – chalice, baptême – baptism, sacrement – sacrament, calvaire – Calvary, viarge (vierge)the Virgin Mary, and crisse (Christ) – Christ, among others.

These words are usually joined together with de – of, to form a potentially endless string of expletives, for example, mon ostie de crisse de câlisse de tabarnak! Mixing and matching seems to be considered quite an art form! Sometimes, milder euphemistic forms are used, like when we say heck instead of hell. For example, people will substitute tabarnouche or tabarouette for tabarnak, câline for câlisse, and mautadite for maudit.

If you want to hear a humorous example of Québécois slang and swearwords, watch the YouTube clip “Bon Cop, Bad Cop Language Lessons” from the 2006 film starring Colm Feore and Patrick Huard as two Canadian detectives, one from Ontario and one from Québec, who have to work together to solve a murder. In this clip, Huard teaches Feore the intricacies of swearing in Québécois.

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