What does the expression “sacrebleu” mean?
According to the Larousse definition (important French dictionary), sacrebleu is a French swear word used to indicate impatience, astonishment or anger, depending on the situation. This expression is a toned-down version of the insult “sacredieu”, which literally means to alter/desecrate God, and was therefore considered for many years as blasphemy.
In the collective imagination, “sacrebleu” has an ancient connotation. The expression is often associated (rightly) with the world of piracy and the Middle Ages. This is why the swear word quickly replaced “sacredieu”. At that time, blasphemy was punished with a corporal punishment that could go from simple penance, to more serious punishments such as burning with a horseshoe, amputation of the tongue or even death sentence.
However, contrary to what one might think, its most frequent use in French culture comes from literary works of the 19th and 20th centuries. The insult “sacrebleu” can be found in many books by Émile Zola and Albert Camus. This expression is wrongly often found in American pop culture works, for example.
Expressions linked to sacrebleu
Throughout the centuries, the expression “sacrebleu” has been used in many different ways, giving rise to a multitude of French expressions based on an identical structure. Here are some of the similar insults that can be found most often in French literature.
- Sacredieu: as explained above, “sacredieu” is the basic insult that has given rise to many derivatives because of its blasphemous nature.
- Sacredié: a variation of “sacredieu”, “sacredié” uses the suffix “dié” inspired by the Latin “dia” which also means “god”. This expression is logically just as blasphemous. It was therefore preferred to use one of its other variations at the time.
- Sacreblotte: another euphemistic variation of the insult “sacrebleu”, “sacreblotte” uses the suffix “blotte”, which was used in the Middle Ages to mean influence, communication or discovery depending on the situation.
- Sacrelotte: another popular variation of “sacrebleu”, the insult “sacrelotte” was mostly used to signify anger. The expression is also found under the writing “sacrelote” in the French literature of this period.
Do the French still use the expression “sacrebleu” in everyday language?
As mentioned in the first part of this article, “sacrebleu” has an old-fashioned connotation, to the point of being totally obsolete in the 21st century. It is likely that if you come across this insult, it will be in writing in works dating back several decades, if not hundreds, of years. This expression is wrongly often found in American pop culture works to refer to French characters, for example.
Here are some expressions that will be preferred to the insult “sacrebleu” in the common language to express his amazement, his anger, or his annoyance:
- Mon dieu: Like “sacredieu” and “sacredié”, the interjection “mon dieu” (=my god) or “oh mon dieu” (=oh my god) was considered a blasphemy throughout the last millennium. However, the expression is still used today in everyday language to signify astonishment.
- Merde: equivalent of “shit” in English, “merde” is one of the most popular swear words in France. Most often, the insult is used when one is shocked or when one has just made a mistake.
- Putain: along with “merde”, “putain” is undoubtedly the most used French insult. Like “fuck” in English, the insult can be used in many situations, whether to emphasize a word or to show irritation. “Putain” is used even more in the South of France, where it is even said that the insult acts as punctuation.
- Zut / Flûte: the expressions “zut” and “flute” are generally used in the same way as the insults above, but in different situations. Much less vulgar, they will often be heard when there are children around or in a professional setting where swearing would be inappropriate.
The different spellings of “sacrebleu” found online
Due to the increasing use of the expression in American literature, movies, and TV shows to depict a French character, the insult “sacrebleu” can be found written in many different ways on the web. Here is an overview of the most common ones:
- Sacre bleu: this is by far the most common mistake when it comes to writing the expression. Contrary to what one might think, the expression “sacre bleu” is indeed written in one word: “sacrebleu”!
- Sacré bleu: another mistake that is found is to confuse the expression “sacré + common noun or proper noun” (sacré = sacred), which is used to accentuate the meaning of the word that follows it (example: tu es un sacré menteur ! / you are a damn liar!). An important point, this version is being used in Québec!
- Scare blue: phonetic transcription of the French expression, “scare blue” is by far the most used script by English speakers when they try to transcribe the swear word.
- Sak le bleu: here again, we see another type of phonetic writing of the insult by non-French speakers: “sak le bleu”.
- Sock la blur: a little less usual, one nevertheless finds “sock la blur” as a phonetic transcription of the French insult when it is used by non-French speakers.
- Sacre blue: “sacre blue” is simply a clumsy translation of the phrase by English speakers. If one wants to find a literal translation, “sacred blue” would probably be the best approximation.
We hope that the meaning of sacrebleu will no longer hold any secrets for you. We invite you to read our other article on the name of a French dish misspelled by our American friends: Omelette du fromage!
Translated into English by Sacha