"A French word that is more vulgar"?

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Norimitsu Onishi, "Using Harsh Language, Macron Issues a Challenge to the Unvaccinated", NYT 1/5/2022:

Faced with a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Omicron variant, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Wednesday that he wanted to “piss off” millions of his citizens who refuse to get vaccinated by squeezing them out of the country’s public spaces.

By shocking the nation with a vulgarity three months before presidential elections, Mr. Macron was relaying not only a public health message, but also a political one. He appeared to be calculating that tapping into the growing public anger against the unvaccinated held more potential electoral rewards than the risk of angering an anti-vaccination minority whose support he has little hope of ever getting. […]

“The unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off,” Mr. Macron said, using a French word that is more vulgar, explaining that a new, reinforced vaccine pass would make it impossible for the unvaccinated to go to restaurants and cafes, or the theater and cinemas. 

The allegedly "more vulgar" word that he actually used was emmerder, for which an English calque might be "en-shit".

So we have parallel metaphors involving bodily waste: English "piss <someone> off" and French "emmerder <quelqu'un>". But there's a key difference: the relevant sense of the English phrase means to make someone angry, while (as far as I can tell) the relevant sense of the French verb means to annoy or bother or inconvenience them.

Wiktionary gives five senses for emmerder, glossed in the French version as:

  1. Souiller d'excréments ("soil with excrement")
  2. Manifester son mépris et parfois sa supériorité ("express contempt and sometimes superiority")
  3. Ennuyer; importuner ("annoy, bore; bother")
  4. S'ennuyer ("bore")
  5. Peiner, se compliquer la vie ("struggle, make life difficult")

In context (in a January 4 interview with readers of Le Parisien), Macron's goal is clearly to annoy or bother the unvaccinated rather than to make them angry:

Isabelle Berrier. Mais tous ces gens-là qui ne sont pas vaccinés sont ceux qui occupent à 85 % les réanimations… Et, par contre, il y a des gens qui sont atteints de cancers dont on reporte les opérations, à qui on ne donne pas l’accès aux soins et qui sont vaccinés !

Ce que vous venez de dire, c’est le meilleur argument. En démocratie, le pire ennemi, c’est le mensonge et la bêtise. Nous mettons une pression sur les non-vaccinés en limitant pour eux, autant que possible, l’accès aux activités de la vie sociale. D’ailleurs, la quasi-totalité des gens, plus de 90 %, y ont adhéré. C’est une toute petite minorité qui est réfractaire. Celle-là, comment on la réduit ? On la réduit, pardon de le dire, comme ça, en l’emmerdant encore davantage. Moi, je ne suis pas pour emmerder les Français. Je peste toute la journée contre l’administration quand elle les bloque. Eh bien, là, les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc, on va continuer de le faire, jusqu’au bout. C’est ça, la stratégie. Je ne vais pas les mettre en prison, je ne vais pas les vacciner de force. Et donc, il faut leur dire : à partir du 15 janvier, vous ne pourrez plus aller au restau, vous ne pourrez plus prendre un canon, vous ne pourrez plus aller boire un café, vous ne pourrez plus aller au théâtre, vous ne pourrez plus aller au ciné…

Isabelle Berrier. But all those people who aren't vaccinated are the ones who take up 85% of the resuscitations… And in contrast, there are people suffering from cancer whose operations are postponed, who don't get access to care and who are vaccinated!

What you've just said, it's the best argument. In a democracy, the worst enemy is lies and stupidity. We put pressure on the non-vaccinated in limiting, as far as possible, their access to the activities of social life.  And by the way, nearly everyone, more than 90%, has complied. It's a very small minority who is resistant. And how do we reduce it? We reduce it, excuse me for saying, like that, by annoying them further. Me, I'm not in favor of annoying the French. I fulminate all day long against the bureaucracy when it it blocks them.  Well there, the non-vaccinated, I want very much to annoy them. And so we'll continue to do it, right to the end. That's the strategy. I'm not going to put them in prison, I'm not going to vaccinate them by force. And so we need to tell them: after January 15, you won't be able to go a restaurant any more, you won't be able to take a shot, you won't be able to go drink a coffee, you won't be able to go to a show, you won't be able to go to a movie…

Degrees of "vulgarity", in the NYT's sense, are not easy to estimate — but my impression is that emmerder is not especially taboo in France, maybe even less problematic in polite company than piss off. And the negative reaction to Macron's phrasing does not focus on his use of a vulgar word, but rather on his frank admission that he wants to inconvenience the unvaccinated. He goes on to say

Quand ma liberté vient menacer celle des autres, je deviens un irresponsable. Un irresponsable n’est plus un citoyen.

When my freedom threatens that of others, I become an irresponsible person. An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen.

The NYT has loosened up somewhat since the days of "Taking shit from the president" (7/19/2006), but apparently discussing the etymology of Macron's word choice is still a step too far.

For a broader perspective, see Johann Fleuri "Le casse-tête de la presse étrangère pour traduire le verbe « emmerder » d'Emmanuel Macron", Ouest-France 1/6/2022:

Les propos tenus par Emmanuel Macron dans un entretien au Parisien ont donné du fil à retordre à la presse étrangère qui a dû composer pour traduire le verbe « emmerder » dans leurs langues respectives, au plus proche du sens français.

En anglais, les médias anglo-saxons ont opté pour les verbes « annoy » comme sur la CNBC ou « hassle », deux traductions qui sont plus proches du verbe embêter, dans la langue de Shakespeare, que du sens grossier du verbe emmerder. D'autres, comme la BBC ou Le Guardian, ont voulu traduire au plus proche de la connotation vulgaire avec « piss off ».

Emmanuel Macron's remarks in an interview at Le Parisien have given a hard time to the foreign press, who have had to put together something to translate the verb "emmerder" in their respective languages, as near as possible to the sense in French.

In English, the anglo-saxon media have chosen the verbs "annoy" as on CNBC or "hassle", two translations that are closer to to the verb embêter, in the language of Shakespeare, than to the vulgar sense of the verb emmerder. Others, like the BBC or the Guardian, have wanted to get closer to the vulgar connotation with "piss off".

Read further to learn about media choices in German, Italian, and Japanese.

That article links to this tweet:

And these responses, among others:

Update — see also "Merde! “Emmerder” les emmerde", Strong Language 1/6/2022.


  1. /df said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 9:09 am

    Speaking as someone who was upbraided for using 'piss off' in the annoy sense on BBC Radio, I find that translation entirely reasonable as it embraces the ennuyer and the peiner senses of emmerder with a matching level of vulgarity, though it may convey a different tenor across the Pond. My understanding is that French is more liberal with foecal vulgarities than English, contrary to the implication of the NYT correspondent, just as the population is keener on suppositories (and bidets).

  2. Thomas said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 9:42 am

    Thank god German does not have these problems with mentioning vulgarities. When I first read the news (in German), it did not occur to me that Macron had been using such a profanity. It was translated in a very innocuous way. But since even the German chancellor Merkel used words such as shitstorm from time to time, I don't think there would be any inhibition to discuss the profane vocabulary of president Macron. Frankly, no one bats an eye at this. Sometimes, American media are weird.

  3. Ellen K. said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 10:14 am

    I think piss off, when talking about wanting to piss someone off, does carry the connotation of wanting to annoy/bother them. It seems like that's more the desire than specifically anger. But it does carry the implication that the person will be, well, pissed off as a result, which it sounds like emmerder does not.

  4. Charles Antaki said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 10:33 am

    Since the aim is to get the recalcitrant to go and be vaccinated, I wonder if the intended sense of >i<emmerder here is closer to 'bother' than 'make angry'.

    If I wanted a busy colleague to do something for me, I'd have better luck bothering than angering them. (Though it might still fail, as Macron's tactic probably will, with most of the ideologically unvaxxed.)

    [(myl) Exactly. And while I think there's a continuum of sorts from annoyance to anger, the fact that emmerder can also be used to invoke boredom suggests that references the milder end of that continuum.]

  5. cameron said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 10:36 am

    I'm in the habit of looking at the French language version of google news, and the headlines in the French news sites about this story in no way drew attention to Macron's use of "vulgar language". As noted above, emmerder barely registers as vulgar.

  6. Robert Coren said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 10:38 am

    My impression is that the French in general are much more casual than English-speakers about "vulgar" language, and that merde and its derivatives are not as "shocking" to the French as shit and its derivatives are to English-speakers. This is equally true of con, which seems to be roughly equivalent to English jerk (the vulgar origins of which have been pretty much totally obscured over the years), whereas cunt is about as vulgar as it gets in the US (somewhat less so in Britain, I gather).

  7. Yvon Henel said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 11:24 am

    The true point, as far as I'm concerned, as a French person, is not the fact that "emmerder" is truly vulgarly colloquial but by who and where it is uttered. Rest assured that such a language is still new for us coming from a President in an official interview.

    We all know that "Celia shits" but there are ways and places to tell it bluntly and others were a genteel metaphor is expected.

    Nonetheless I concur with the equivalence "emmerder"=bother in that case.

  8. Lester said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 11:49 am

    I'm happy to report that the crack (intended) reporting team at Strong Language is on the case: https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2022/01/06/merde-emmerder-les-emmerde/#more-8126

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 11:58 am

    There's a well-established English idiom that seems very close to a "literal" translation of emmerder, but that doesn't solve the potential problem of emmerder being less taboo or "strong" to the Francophone ear than this English analogue. https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/shit+all+over

  10. Johanna Bishop said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 12:10 pm

    Ah, so it was "emmerder"… I read the same article this morning without having time to look up the original quote, and the only thing that sprang to mind (it's been a long time since I've accessed that part of my French vocabulary) was "faire chier". Which sounded awfully odd, and indeed, more vulgar.

  11. Phillip said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 12:22 pm

    It seems that a fairly obvious translation that captures both the etymological root and the intended meaning is "annoy the shit out of someone". I wonder why that hasn't been used yet.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 1:07 pm

    And the negative reaction to Macron's phrasing does not focus on his use of a vulgar word, but rather on his frank admission that he wants to cause trouble for the unvaccinated.

    Of course. That's a cultural thing. Of the few widely known media I'd expect to care about the wording more than about the content, most or all are based in the US, and the NYT is one of them.

    con, which seems to be roughly equivalent to English jerk

    Oh, even that is decades in the past. Con has become an adjective meaning "stupid", and acquired a feminine form conne. It's unremarkable for a 40-year-old woman to slap her forehead and say j'suis conne ! "I'm such an idiot!" outside perhaps the most polite situations.

  13. John said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 3:16 pm

    I remember deGaulle used the expression “chi-en-lit” way back when in reference to the 1968 student demonstrations in France. It has a scatological etymology, but is actually something softer such as “chaos.” I also remember the US press went ballistic over it.

  14. Andrea S. said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 4:37 pm

    This makes me think of the 1973 French movie "L'emmerdeur" (very funny, btw). Translating the title must have posed the same problem international press is facing now.

  15. John Swindle said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 4:49 pm

    If the French original is indeed less vulgar than English-speakers assume, then a less vulgar translation might work. Mess with the unvaccinated. Bug the hell out of the unvaccinated (a variation on Alison Sargent's suggestion).

  16. cliff arroyo said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 5:41 pm

    Isn't this burying the lede? Isn't the dehumanizing language being used by national leaders toward the unvaccinated a topic of interest?

  17. Viseguy said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 7:15 pm

    @cliff arroyo: I'm more upset that "annoy" buries the merde. I like the suggestion of "annoy the shit out of" — it's closer in meaning to the original. (The fact that it happens to be what unvaccinated people do to me — and, evidently, to M. Macron — is neither here nor there, though it makes me sympathetic to Macron's suggestion that the favor should be returned in kind).

    [(myl) Unfortunately, that suggestion is quite out of step with what Macron actually said, as well as with the usual senses and current socio-cultural associations of emmerder. Consider the passage where he contrasts the unvaccinated with the population in general:

    Moi, je ne suis pas pour emmerder les Français. Je peste toute la journée contre l’administration quand elle les bloque.

    I translated this as

    Me, I'm not in favor of annoying the French. I fulminate all day long against the bureaucracy when it it blocks them.

    Maybe "I'm not in favor of inconveniencing the French people" would be better.

    But "I'm not in favor of annoying the shit out of the French people" gets the tone (and indeed the meaning) all wrong.

  18. David C. said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 9:11 pm

    I was annoyed that the articles I saw in English didn't include the actual word that was used, either in parentheses or otherwise, leading me to have to first guess which word it was, and eventually to look it upion a French press web site. I had the same reaction that "emmerder" is not the shocking vulgarity that I was led to believe from the NYT article.

  19. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 4:14 am

    In my early days of coping with real French, when I heard a well-brought up young lady say "je m'en fou", and checked up later on "foutre", I was shocked. In those days the English equivalent was still pretty strongly taboo.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    @David C: The article I read in The Boston Globe (probably lifted from the Times) quoted the word in the last paragraph, which I meant I spent most of my time whole reading the article wondering what he had actually said.

  21. R. Fenwick said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 10:39 am

    At first I was a little surprised nobody has yet pointed out in the comments that English shit has a parallel verb usage to French emmerder, but when I looked into it I discovered that apparently the usage is typical only of my native Australian English. Some illustrative examples:

    But what shits me on the whole is a Federal Government who have fucked a vaccine program up so badly that we can’t even convince people to take the ones we managed to get. (Pedestrian.tv, 27 May 2021)
    When she really shat me was when she assured news.com.au, perhaps the most appropriate site for discussion of such a flat work, that she was not queer but, “very, very straight!” (Daily Review, 23 May 2016)
    It makes you aware that we need to make the people that are spending $2.50 feel just as important as the people spending $500, $600, $700 for a function. Because that just shits you. You’re rendered helpless. (CityMag, 1 Apr 2021)

    As such, in my vernacular I'd happily render the key passage from Macron's interview thus:

    It's a very small minority who are obstinate. And how do we reduce that? We reduce it – pardon my language* – like this, by shitting them even more. Me, I'm not here to shit the French people. I rant all day against bureaucracy when it stymies them. The unvaccinated, though, I'm very keen to shit them.

    * (No matter how tempting it might be, especially under these circumstances, to also deploy the vernacular "pardon my French" here.)

  22. Kate Bunting said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 12:06 pm

    When I first saw the story, the word was rendered as 'hassle'. I wondered for a few moments what the French original was, then forgot about it until I heard the full story on the radio news.

  23. SusnC said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 2:06 pm

    In English, "piss them off" has strong connections of anger; in this particular context, it could easily be read as implying "cause widespread rioting",

    Which was possibly not what the original French was meant to imply,

    It would be coherent English to say, for example, "M. Macron's policy was intended to get people to take the vaccine, but instead it just pissed them off."

  24. Andy Stow said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 2:11 pm

    He wants to poop in their Cheerios.

  25. SusanC said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 2:40 pm

    I think "hassle" as in "I really want to hassle them", captures the sense of it much better.

  26. SusanC said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 2:42 pm

    "Piss in their cornflakes" would be the British English idiom.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 7:54 pm

    As a native Briton, I have never heard (or read) of pissing in someone's cornflakes, but if I were asked to render "poop in their Cheerios" into British English then I would have to render "poop" as "shit", not "piss". As to "Cheerios", I have no idea what they are, but as they start with a capital letter I must assume that they are an American brand of something rather than a generic, in which case "shit in their Kellogg's" might be the closest I could achieve. And no, the apostrophe is not a malformed plural; it is the correct form of the company's name / product.

  28. Eric TF Bat said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 8:47 pm

    Reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal?) story of the Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the last real Aussie bloke to fill the position, commenting on something the Japanese government had done by saying "don't play silly buggers with us". It's an innocuous expression in Australian English, similar to "don't play the fool" or "don't be stupid", but apparently the Japanese press were thoroughly confused. The translation they settled on was the Japanese for "do not play at being laughing homosexuals with us!"

  29. James Wimberley said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 8:06 am

    " Mort aux cons" has is own Wikipedia page. Famously, de Gaulle is claimed to have commented on a student protest placard in 1968 carrying he phrase: "Vaste programme!"

  30. Robert Coren said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 11:07 am

    @Philip Taylor: Cheerios is a particular type of breakfast cereal – specifically, pieces shaped like small doughnuts, made from oat flour – made by General Mills.

  31. /df said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 4:26 pm

    And available in British supermarkets!

  32. Adrian Bailey said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 7:16 am

    I concur with your correspondents who wonder why you don't think "annoy" means "make someone angry".

  33. Craig said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 7:40 am

    And of course, Kellogg’s is a US brand and an eponym for its founder, Michigan industrialist W.K.Kellogg, whose Seventh-Day Adventist dietary views led him and his brother to invent corn flakes.

  34. SusanC said,

    January 9, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

    From Le Figaro:

    "Des heurts entre manifestants et forces de l'ordre ont émaillé la manifestation anti-passe sanitaire à Montpellier ce samedi, qui a rassemblé 3700 personnes selon la préfecture. En tête de cortège, plusieurs jeunes hommes cagoulés défilaient, suivis de quelques dizaines de gilets jaunes. «Macron, on t'emmerde», ont-ils scandé, «Montpellier est en colère»."

    Yes, they're pissed off. En colère, even.

  35. Andreas Johansson said,

    January 10, 2022 @ 4:38 am

    Swedish media (well, those I've seen at least) rendered it as jävlas med "mess with", which may be vulgar in the sense of being common or low-class, but not obscene.

    (Etymologically it's something like "treat diabolically", but the connection with djävul "devil" is probably not felt at all by most speakers.)

  36. R. Fenwick said,

    January 11, 2022 @ 12:53 am

    @cliff arroyo: Isn't the dehumanizing language being used by national leaders toward the unvaccinated a topic of interest?

    What about Macron's comments is dehumanising, as opposed to simply challenging? What definition of "dehumanising" are you working with? All he's doing is expressing his willingness to piss people off in order to combat a demonstrably dangerous political perspective. There's no inviolable human right to not be pissed off.

  37. David Marjanović said,

    January 14, 2022 @ 11:57 am

    I concur with your correspondents who wonder why you don't think "annoy" means "make someone angry".

    Well, "make someone low-level angry", chronically instead of acutely.

  38. Irriter ne suffit pas : ce que le désarroi de la presse étrangère nous dit de l’« emmerder » présidentiel | Groupe Gaulliste Sceaux said,

    January 19, 2022 @ 12:40 pm

    […] Les commentateurs anglophones ont beaucoup relevé qu’« emmerder » veut littéralement dire « couvrir de merde », ce qui est effectivement le sens de ce verbe à l’origine, comme l’atteste par exemple le grand dictionnaire étymologique de Bloch et Wartburg, qui fait autorité pour le français et ses variétés régionales. […]

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