The word Putain

In Paris, putain is more than a word. It is a crutch.

A crutch for Parisian’s mental and social impendiments. Parisians love to use their little putain crutch. It is impossible to have a five-minute conversation with a Parisian without hearing the crutch resonate. That is true except if you are a Parisian yourself. Parisians have developed an unusual ability: that of not hearing the sound of the crutch anymore. When pronounced in a sentence by him or by any other person, the word is completely inaudible to the Parisian.

The noun putain refers to a prostitute. The interjection putain refers to no one. In its most common usage, it simply vividly expresses utterly Parisian feelings like discontentment, anger and frustration: stuck in a traffic jam: “Putain, mais c’est pas possible“; talking about her boss “Il est complètement con, putain“… In those instances, the word works as a very Parisian capital letter or full stop. It is by far the most common usage of the word.

But the reach of the word goes beyond this initial scope. Putain in Paris also defines surprise: witnessing a car accident “Oh putain“; watching the clock: “Putain, il est déjà deux heures ?” It can also be a firm injonction to stop joking around: “Putain, t’es serieux?”, “Attends putain, deux secondes”. In the same realm, used on its own, putain in a conversation can express sympathy and interest when a sad subject is being talked about.Parisian 1: Et c’est là  que son mari l’a quittée. Parisian 2: Putain. Parisian 1: Ouais, et donc elle se retrouve avec trois gamins…” Awkwardly enough, it can also express admiration or encouragement: talking about a really good movie: “Putain, c’était hyper bien”; discovering a friend’s new apartment: “Putainnn”; hearing that someone they knew took a trip around the world: “Putain..?”; watching a game on TV “Allez putain!!”

When follow by de, putain is used to emphasize: “Il a une putain de voiture”, “C’est un putain de restaurant”. This last usage is the only one that will be considered rude. Simply because it is the only instance where the Parisian will actually hear the word.

In the end, the word putain in Paris is used to express surprise, anger, encouragement, frustation, emphasis or admiration. That is for sure one helpful crutch. Be they physical or verbal, extensive use of crutches reveals afflictions. In the case of Parisians, extensive use of the word putain, in its most frequent sense, shows the social need for anger, roughness and frustration. These are social necessities in Paris. If you are not angry about most events of life, ready to swear about it, and not even notice it when you do so – you clearly are not a Parisian. Putain is just another tool to blend in. Running around when everybody walks with crutches would be straight up rude. The choice is simple fopr people who live in Paris: sprinkle every one of your sentences with a putain or go find a city of your own.

While it certainly is helpful, extensive use of crutches has one disadvantage: it creates atrophies and muscular unbalances. The outcome of using putain extensively in Paris is a form of mental laziness. Easy expression of easy emotions. A world of discrete facades. Making up emptiness with easy negativity. Pretending to be there while hiding behind words.

One of Parisians’ favorite people to imitate is people from the South of France. When doing so, he will systematically start or finish his first sentence with a South-of-France-accented “Putainnnggg…” Parisians have quite the sense of observation.
Stuff Parisians Like Useful tip: If you don’t know what to say, just say putain.

Sound like a Parisian: “Non mais putain… c’est pas possible bordel!”

Want more? Get the full story here…

Coming to Paris soon? Make sure to put O Chateau on your list. Join us for a wine tasting, a nice glass of wine or simply to meet the author of this silly text. It’ll be a pleasure to have you.

46 replies
  1. Jerome
    Jerome says:

    Putain, trop bon l’article. Désolé, quasiment obligée cette vanne pourrie haha
    Happy new year to you too monsieur ! J’espère qu’on verra plein de billets hilarants cette année encore

  2. Leesa
    Leesa says:

    I agree! My husband says it less than the average Parisian.. but whenever I go up to Paris, I hear this out of the mouths of almost everyone…. I’m sure if Parisian dogs could talk, they’d say it, too!
    It’s like how I say… “Shit…. ” Or “Damn…” California’s use “Shit …” the way Parisians use “Putain…. ”
    Happy New Year, by the way… I was wondering what happened to you! : )

  3. Peter Newman-Legros
    Peter Newman-Legros says:

    Putain, had to wait an age for this new blog and thus the opportunity to wish you Bonne Année, Olivier.

    Sadly, I believe it to the be the equivalent of the much over-used english “fuck/fucking” – wish it weren’t.

  4. Polly-Vous Francais
    Polly-Vous Francais says:

    Putain, Olivier, you got it!

    A great example was in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris,” where Romain Duris says to Juliette Binoche(who plays his sister), “Putain, t’es en forme, toi. Profites-en, putain.”

  5. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Jerome… Merci. I’ll do my best!
    Leesa… Less anger and frustration in shit I reckon! California’s hiding words are more positive: awesame, amazing, great… Thx for your good wishes. As per the long silence, I plead guilty: December was pretty busy with work then I just took a few days off in Switzerland early Jan. Just got back.
    Peter… Merci bcp. Happy New year to you too. Here, a little view on how French comedians view American movies twenty years ago:
    Polly… I haven’t seen that movie. Sounds really arrogant to call your movie ‘Paris’. Especially when it seemed so depressing.

  6. WendyRG
    WendyRG says:

    Câlisse, c’était drôle, hostie. Un tabarnak de bon article.

    We’ve got our own “putain”s in Québec.

    Bonne année, Olivier. Ravie de vous revoir !

  7. Nadia Albertini
    Nadia Albertini says:

    Putain, mais il est super cet article!
    Merci, I can finally say putain toutes les trois secondes without having to feel guilty or explain myself. I will send this article to whoever dares complaining about me using the p word.

    I am a huge fan of your blog. Thank you for all the fun, so true and lucid articles about this magical/beautiful/crazy/stressful city and its residents.

    Happy New Year to you too, might it bring you lots of fun, love, health and great inspiration to write many many posts!

  8. Martin
    Martin says:

    You forgot a common idiom, the abbreviated form: ‘tain.

    Example: ” ‘tain, t’avait qu’à prendre la voiture, à la fin.”

    Happy 2010!

  9. Ash
    Ash says:

    At last, a new post.
    I was beginning to fear for you (meaning I feares for the regular psychotherapy of my bad habits…).
    First and foremost, a very happy year 2010 two the owner and the happy readers of this blogs.
    Two comments on the post itself : I respectfully dissent on the “useful tip” mentionned above : while “Putain”, or “‘Tain” can be easily used in any situation involving a strong emotion, like anger or surprise, it can never be a crutch for verbalizing doubt or hesitation : Parisians will actually listen to you in these instance, therefore hearing you pronounce this very rude word.
    My second point is that the Parisian mental degradation has gone so far that any Parisian hearing you express an emotion with the appropriate expression (such as “sapristi” for surprise or “un sacrément bon restaurant”) will look at you like you are an uneducated earthworm. Period. Do not hesitate to use the word, even if it seems shocking at first. But do it “Parisian way”, quickly, not really meaning what you say.

  10. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    WendyRG… Merci beaucoup. Je ne connaissais pas Hostie. Very Spanish of you!
    Nadia… Thank you very much for such a nice comment. I’m glad you find some pleasure in reading this little blog. As per your good wishes… fingers crossed!
    Martin… True! Makes me realize that, I don’t even hear this anymore! 😉
    Ash… Psychotherapy ain’t quite over I guess then! The “owner” of this blog thanks you (can one own something that cost or makes no money?). Regarding the useful tip thing, it was more humorous than anything. It’s true though that even in the case of extreme relaxation, sitting on a rocking chair in the sun after a nice meal, the parisian might go “ahhhhh putain”! Now as per your sapristi comment, I like this. I’m all for the rehabilitation of neglected words.

  11. Barbra
    Barbra says:

    Very funny, and very true.

    The F-word is my crutch, I admit it. I’m trying to be more judicious with it, but I will never give it up. Never. I love it too much.

  12. Lil
    Lil says:

    Somehow I’ve been taught the “clean up” substitutes (in English), e.g. sugar/shoot to replace s**t, feck to replace the f-word, darn it to replace damn it. But I’m sure people still know what I’m trying to say. Is there such equivalent in French?

    And a very happy new year to you too Olivier! 😀

  13. lauren
    lauren says:

    yes, there are such words in french too:
    you can use purée instead of putain, some people use mercredi instead of merde, but as olivier says in the article, most people don’t evevn notice using the p or the m word, so they won’t use another one instead, and the rare people who do use them are mostly parents in front of their kids or kids in front of adults trying to provocate them…

  14. Anait
    Anait says:

    This reminds me of my grade school teachers, who always scolded: “ne dis pas putain…dis punaise”. somehow, not as satisfying.

    Happy New Year, Olivier…qu’il soit rempli d’amour et de joie :)

  15. H
    H says:

    Excellent entry, and so so true. I live in Paris and I feel like I hear the word “putain” more than any other word! That and “gueule”

  16. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Barbra… Thank you! Truth be told, I quite like it too!
    Lil… I think Lauren summarizes it beautifully. Punaise is another one. All in all, they sound pretty ugly!
    Lauren… Word!
    Leesa… Thx! Swiss was good. Swiss wine, raclette, fondue bourguignonne, skiing, more swiss wine… what’s not to like?!
    Anait… Merci bcp. Sounds like a lovely plan. May someone hear you. As per your teacher, This is the worst piece of advice one can give to a foreigner. Unless you signed up to the “Sound like a loser” class.
    A.J… Best comment ever. You must comment every entry as of now (and share your secrets with your girl friends).
    H… Thx. You do occasionally get the super combo when a kid cries or something, the Parisian will put on an extremely annoyed face and say “Mais pourquoi il gueule comme ca, putain?!”. Or, for the more warm-blooded ones: “Mais putain, pourquoi il gueule comme ca?”. Maybe followed by a classic “Putain, c’est pas vrai!”. Gotta love it!

  17. Neozelandaise
    Neozelandaise says:

    I love putain. I really need to remember to say it more. At least then my family wouldn’t complain about my bad language on Facebook… until they translate it!

  18. noëlle
    noëlle says:

    I agree with your observations, Olivier, except the notion that “putain” is somehow Parisian. I lived in Toulouse and traveled all over France and heard “putain” plenty, so I have to think this is not something you could say is unique to Paris.

    I had a roommate who used to say “punaise” and yes, it sounds incredibly dorky!

  19. Ingo
    Ingo says:

    funny post. new French word for me! :) Good value with this one! (will have to buy a ‘putain’ t-shirt to wear around Paris now, j/k) I should mention to be careful with the f-word in English. Contrary to the language in recent film, there are quite a few nuances of when/where to use it in real life without sounding crazy or unecessarily vulgar. Bonne année à tous !! :)

  20. Benn
    Benn says:

    Being a parisian myself, I concur.
    My wife uses the P word a lot (to my despair… the fact that such an ugly word can come out of such a beautiful mouth so often baffles me!)
    I tend to prefer the use of “Saperlipopette” (thus agreeing with Ash 😉 ) and I once again concur, people will look at you sideways if you use polite words instead of the P word.
    This is the first post I read from this blog, and it’s mouth watering, you’ll be seeing more of me I think :)

  21. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    NeoZ… Question is: is being friends with your family on Facebook a good idea?
    Noelle… Oh I didn’t say it was exclusive to Paris. Though in the South (esp. Toulouse), it seems as if people use it more to mark their surprise or enthusiasm.
    Ingo… Bonne année! Yup, very good value indeed! As per the F. word, I love to use it. But that’s because I’m pretty street.
    WizzyTheStick… Well thank you very much. You ok with so much light?! Merci though – appreciate (mild addiction to comments here).
    Shannon… Merci bcp. I guess O Chateau is a story of words and wine in the end. Tricky craftsmanship that is but we’re doing our very best.
    Benn… Well welcome!! As per women swearing, I must confess – call me old school – it does really hurt my ears.

  22. lagatta à montréal
    lagatta à montréal says:

    Olivier, you are awfully young to have such attitudes! Va te faire… 😉

    I pick up the putain when in France or among people from across the pond – in Italian we say things like porca madonna, which combines the prostitutional aspect with the religious one… (hope I didn’t offend anyone there; this is just an example).

    I find PUNAISE a much worse word than PUTAIN. Most people would far prefer to spend the night with the latter.

    I’ll cook you a lovely “puttanesca” (pasta à la mode des péripatéticiennes de Naples)!

  23. jes
    jes says:

    Putain is one of the first everyday “bad” words I learned in Paris (after merde but I heard children saying this…). Now I have the biggest potty mouth en anglais et français. :]

    I hope you had a wonderful New Year Olivier. I was beginning to have withdrawal symptoms of SPL.

  24. Stéphan Aubin
    Stéphan Aubin says:

    gottferdomme !
    Olivier, just reaching the south of France and you strat with particuliar idioms…
    Cong !

    All the best for 2010 to you too !

  25. tangerine
    tangerine says:

    so good ! i use it all the time… it is like breathing.

    i think the americans have quite a few of these words they place everywhere and which in the end no longer have meaning “sooooo”, “you know what i mean ?” and the extremely irritating “OMG!”

    uuuh. just writing it pisses me off.
    but it is true putain has become like a deep breath ; and still, it remains unelegant.

  26. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Lagatta… All the porca thing is great: porca troia, porca madonna, porca miseria… As per the puttanesca, thanks for clarifying the origin of it – I had always wondered!
    Stephan… Cheers! Les Languedociens ont de belles expressions… Have fun with them!!
    Touring in Brittany… Merci. Glad I can help! Et vive la Bretagne!
    Tangerine… Hmm, Americans and the meaning of words… don’t even get me started!

  27. Berit
    Berit says:

    Hahah that was one of the first words my French friends taught me during my semester abroad in Edinburgh. They were utterly delighted whenever I used it, although they said the shorter version “put” was way cooler. Ahh bless the Frenchmen 😀

  28. Capucine
    Capucine says:

    So true!

    Olivier, votre plume s’aiguise au fil des posts et je dois dire que je m’en délecte! (en bonne parisienne, j’aime le petit plaisir de jolies phrases ou de bons mots)

    Je suggère comme prochain sujet verbal et autre grand favori des parisiens: “En fait” , je le sais je l’utilise moi-même 100 fois par jour!

  29. Capucine
    Capucine says:

    Berit: “put”? Jamais entendu.

    Ah, I forgot to mention my super combo of French swear words which, I think, is quite used: “Putain de bordel de merde”, but that’s only when I’m super pissed for having the most terrible and horridous day, days where the Murphy law of maximal “emmerdement” has clearly targeted me.
    Otherwise, and I may not sound parisians on this, I’m in a rehab of putain, and trying to cut all swear words, which I don’t use a lot apart from the occasional putain of stupefaction and my super combo of shitty days.

  30. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Berit… That will never go away. First things people from different countries share is swear words. Love it!
    Capucine… Merci beaucoup. Content que ces petits articles vous plaisent. C’est le but. As per the cutting down on swearing, I think it’s a good call. Not a very pretty thing for a woman to do. (me = old school). :-)

  31. PSS
    PSS says:

    Cher Olivier, je découvre votre blog par cet article et alors là, chapeau. Peu de gens savent non seulement aussi bien observer les Parisiens que nous sommes mais, en outre, summum de la difficulté, transmettre cette vision (critique, moqueuse, mais bienveillante) à nos amis anglo-saxons, qui plus est en maniant aussi bien l’humour… américain, justement. Bravo.

    Ah, et comme expression de surprise surannée et désuète mais que je trouve mignonne, je propose “saperlipopette”.

    A vous retrouver prochainement sur votre blog et bonne continuation.

  32. Nathan Lambert
    Nathan Lambert says:

    loooool! Excellent article.

    Mon préféré demeurera toujours celui du parisien qui découvre qu’il y a un bouchon alors qu’il est en voiture:

    “Putain de meeeerdeuuuu!”

  33. six
    six says:

    the only reason I dislike this word is I find it has an sexist overtone, it equates anything disagreeable with a female…or perhaps we’ll ignore most pimps are men.

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