In the long line of French insults, one, in particular, stands out: “putain”. The insult, which could be described as a French-style “fuck”, is used in many everyday situations. If you’re ready to learn how to swear like a Frenchman, find out all about the use, the etymology, and the meaning of “putain” through this article.
What does “putain” mean?
If we go back to the etymology of the swear word, “putain” comes directly from the Latin term ” pûta ” which originally meant “fille” (=girl), before becoming “putta”, then “pute” in old French. ” Putain ” is therefore simply a derivative of “pute”, a vulgar term designating a prostitute.
Although a few centuries ago, it was common to call a prostitute a “putain”, today the term “pute” is almost always preferred in this sense. Thus, nowadays, “putain” will almost never be used to refer to a prostitute, whether the swear word is used as an insult or simply to speak in a vulgar manner.
Nevertheless, in its use over time, “putain” has largely moved away from its original meaning. Today, ” putain” is a generic insult, which can be used to express negative emotions as well as to accentuate positive ones.
Translating the term into English can be tricky as there are countless ways to translate it depending on the context and situation. Generally speaking, the terms you will find most often to translate ” putain ” are ” fuck “, ” damn “, ” shit ” or ” god “, but the list is far from being exhaustive.
How do you spell “putain” ?
Because of its repeated use by the French, it is not uncommon for foreigners to hear the expression and then attempt to transcribe it in writing with varying degrees of success. Among these poorly spelled transcriptions, we find:
In French, there is only one way to write the swear word: “putain”. Indeed, as we mentioned above, the word is composed of the root of “pute” and the suffix “ain” which means “qui est de” (=which is of) or “qui est relatif à” (=which is relative to). Any other spelling is therefore to be avoided.
How is “putain” pronounced in French?
Despite its similarity to the name of the current president of Russia or to the Quebec dish of cheese fries, “putain” is pronounced quite differently from these two paronyms. While these two words are pronounced “pou-tine” or “poo-tine”, the two syllables of the French swear word are different. It is then closer to “pu-tin”.
If we refer to the international phonetic alphabet, the official phonetic writing of “putain” is /py.tɛ̃/.
However, the pronunciation of the term varies greatly depending on the geographical area. Where Parisians and northern French are used to pronouncing the word “normally” (“putain”), southerners will tend to accentuate the last syllable of the word, making the pronunciation closer to “putaing”.
How is “putain” used in France?
Like “fuck” in English, “putain” can be used in almost any situation. It is mostly used:
- When you are shocked: just like “fuck”, “putain” will often be used as an interjection to show your amazement or incomprehension.
➡️ Oh putain ! T’as vu ce qu’il vient de se passer ?!
Oh shit ! Did you see what just happened?!
➡️ Putain. J’en reviens pas qu’il t’ait dit ça !
God. I can’t believe he told you that !
- When you are desperate: “putain” can also be used to emphasize a feeling of distress and/or intense sadness.
➡️ Putain… Ces choses-là n’arrivent qu’à moi…
Damn… These things only happen to me…
➡️ Elle t’a vraiment fait ça..? Putain…
She really did this to you..? Fuck…
- When you are angry: “putain” is obviously used as an insult. It can be used alone or as part of a nominal group, accompanied by the subject of the insult or other insults.
➡️ Y’en a marre de ces putains de moustiques !
I’m tired of these fucking mosquitoes !
➡️ Ce mec est un putain de connard.
This guy is a fucking bastard.
- When you are relieved: It is not uncommon to exclaim “putain” when you have just received good news or completed a difficult task.
➡️ Putain ! Ça y est. Mon frère a enfin eu son permis de conduire !
Shit ! Here it is. My brother finally got his driver license !
➡️ Putain. Il était temps que la journée se termine.
God. It was time that the day ended.
- When we are in pain: “putain” will be the most commonly used insult when we feel pain, whether it is physical or mental.
➡️ Aie putain ! Je me suis cogné l’orteil dans le coin de mon bureau…
Ouch (fuck) ! I stubbed my toe in the corner of my desk…
➡️ Ils nous ont quittés… Putain…
They left us… Damn…
As you can see, the French use “putain” in all sorts of ways in everyday life. And it is even more the case in some specific regions…
For my part, this word reminds me directly of one of the hidden cameras of the Belgian actor François Damien. Here he is in action using it a number of times in a toy store:
Whore used as punctuation in the South: myth or reality?
In France, it is often said that people from the South (South-West and South-East together) tend to use “putain” as a punctuation word, replacing the comma or the period in most of their sentences.
So, myth or reality?
Well… It is indeed a stereotype… But a stereotype that is verified by the facts!
In the south of France, it is not uncommon to begin or end a perfectly innocent sentence with “putain”. The swear word is used so much that it has lost its vulgarity over the years. Whether in a professional or personal context, it is perfectly acceptable to pronounce this word in the South, whereas in Paris, it would be more shocking to use it. In the same way, the insult “con” is also commonly used by southerners, without any intention behind it., “Oh con ! Tu as vu le match hier ?” (=Oh dummy! Did you see the game yesterday?).
You will have understood that in the South, “putain” is more than a simple swear word, it has almost become an onomatopoeia. The term is used by all generations, and it is not uncommon to hear young children using the word without any reprimand from their parents, whereas pronouncing other French swear words like “merde” would be instantly reprimanded.
Expressions derived from the term “putain”
Generally speaking, expressions based on ” putain ” have a similar construction: they are composed of ” putain ” + ” de ” + common noun. The last part of the expression will either refer directly to the subject of the insult, or it will be another insult, in which case putain will simply amplify the overall insult.
- Putain de + nom commun
The most common derivation based on the insult is when “putain” precedes a common noun, whether the latter designates a person or an object. Literally any noun in the French language can follow “putain de” and give rise to a pejorative or positive expression. The most common translation will be “fucking” with the noun.
J’ai raté la réunion car mon putain de bus est encore arrivé en retard.
I missed the meeting because my fucking bus arrived late again.
Cette soirée était putain de bien.
This party was fucking great.
- Putain de sa mère
Just like in English, many French insults are based on the role of the mother. Quite naturally, “putain de sa mère” is one of the most commonly used derivatives of “putain”. Again, it can be used in both positive and negative contexts. In English, “putain de sa mère” can be translated in many ways depending on the context. Although “motherfucker” may seem to be the closest English term at first glance, in reality, other translations are often more accurate.
Putain de sa mère. Je n’y arrive pas.
God. I can’t do it.
Ce repas était putain de bon sa mère.
This meal was so damn good.
- Putain de merde
“Putain de merde” is the insult that combines the two most commonly used swear words in France: “putain” and “merde”. Although the expression may seem very vulgar, it is not necessarily considered rude depending on the situation in which it is used. In general, one will say “putain de merde” when one is shocked and/or panicked, or when one wants to emphasize the meaning of the swear word “merde”.
Il y a beaucoup trop de monde. C’est la putain de merde là.
There’s way too many people. This is fucking chaotic there.
Je suis une putain de merde au football.
I’m fucking trash at soccer.
- Putain de bordel de merde
“Putain de bordel de merde” is one of the most vulgar expressions derived from “putain”. It is composed of three insults: “putain” and “merde” as in “putain de merde”, and “bordel” which literally means a brothel or a big mess. Difficult to translate into English, we prefer to use vulgar expressions based on “fuck” or “motherfucker”.
Putain de bordel de merde ! Ça fait trois heures que je suis bloqué dans les bouchons.
Fucking hell ! I’ve been stuck in traffic for three hours.
Putain de bordel de merde ! J’ai oublié ma carte d’identité.
Holy motherfucking shit ! I forgot my ID.
Less vulgar ways of saying “putain”
There are also ways to say ” putain ” without really pronouncing the insult.
If you are around children and you suddenly feel like exclaiming “damn!”, you can make up for it with the words “purée “(=mashed potatoes) or “punaise” (=bug). This way, the people around you will understand what you mean, and the children won’t have to hear the insulting word.
We find this same phenomenon in English with the term “sugar” instead of “shit”, and in French, when we say “mercredi” (=wednesday) to avoid pronouncing the word “merde”.
Now that you know everything about the use and meaning of “putain”, you are ready to swear like a good Frenchman! If you want to learn more about the French language, don’t hesitate to check out our other articles on the most commonly used French expressions abroad such as “oh là là” or “c’est la vie“.
Translated into English by Sacha