question re: swearing in France 1889-1890
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First - my question is about swearing so if that offends you, please don't read this post.
I just read Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick. It is a historical fiction novel, so it takes place in France in 1889-1890. The characters seemed (to me, anyway) to swear in a completely modern way.
The characters used the following profanities:
fuck (as in "fucking failure"; "fuck off"; "fuck you")
pissed (as in "I'm so pissed at him")
screw (as in "you want to screw me")
I'm thinking this is totally out of character for that time period and it detracted from the book a lot.
I don't think "fuck" and "screw" were even in common usage at that point, particularly the phrases "fuck off" and "fuck you". Am I incorrect? Also, if characters in France were going to use the term "pissed", it would be much more likely to be the British version (meaning drunk) than the American version (meaning angry), correct?
Can anyone shed some historically accurate light on this for me?
The old-fashioned way to translate "fuck" in French is "foutre". I believe this verb could be used in the late 19c., but only in lower classes of the society, because it was very rude at that time. It is now used in expressions which, still vulgar, have lost their primary inensity, such as: "J'en n'ai rien à foutre" ("I don't care a damn") or "Fous-moi le camp" ("sod off"). (I believe that my translations into English are rude, whereas the French equivalents are almost colloquial now.)
There is no strict equivalent of "pissed" in French. Rather than liquid images, the French usually employ more solid ones. As for "screw", perhaps the old-fashioned verb "baiser" could be used at that time, but still in the lower classes.
In the main, even in Huysmans's late-19c. naturalist novels, I cannot remember having seen such a vocabulary. You seem to have bad readings. ;-)
My question has to do with the modernity of those terms. I believe (possibly incorrectly) that they are too new to have been actually used in those times.
The characters that swore were Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and a french prostitute. So does that make a difference? Were prostitutes likely to use that kind of language back then? And, I don't know what to make of Van Gogh and Gauguin...
As I read the book, the swearing seemed very jarring and surprising in light of the way the characters said everything else. It seemed glaringly out of line with the rest of the book. Most of the talking done by the characters seemed in line with the time of the book.
If the author was thinking about how a real french person would swear, would she choose the above words to be her version of the "translation"?
I'm not actually complaining. Just stumped and wondering how true to life the verbiage really was for those times.
fuck: written form attested from early 1500s (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fuck)
pissed, as in angry: too new for time period of your story, first attested in 1946, although piss dates back to late 13th c. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=piss)
screw, as in copulate: from around 1725 (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=screw)
Perhaps what you find jarring is the fact that these words are frequently used in the book you are speaking of. I too would be disconcerted in that case.
I think "pissed" is the one term that seemed so out of place - possibly "angry" would have been a better choice. I thought the American meaning, particularly, was way too new for the 19th century - it just didn't fit with the rest of the language of the book.
It was NOT my favorite book....
Thank you all so much.
(The etymology links are great!)
I have to admit that I'm unclear on what exactly the original poster is objecting to here. Is it the presence of "swear" words at all (presuming that educated 19th-century men did not swear or use coarse language amongst themselves-a presumption belied by many personal letters and diaries from the period) or is it to the English equivalents the author chose to use. While I guess one could argue the use of "pissed off", the other terms seem perfectly reasonable to me given what we know of Van Gogh and Gauguin's personalities and real-life language use.
My objection was to the manner in which the characters swore, which to me, seemed altogether modern. I just think the author could have done a better job of integrating them into the old style language that she used for the characters.
If you happen to stumble upon the book, browse through it and maybe you can see what I mean...
Fuck, as a verb meaning "to fornicate, to copulate" has been around since at least 1503 (as grammargoddess said):
a 1503 Dunbar Poems lxxv. 13 Be his feiris he wald haue fukkit.
1535 Lyndesay Satyre 1363 Bischops‥may fuck thair fill and be vnmaryit.
Still, in these cases, fuck(ing) is used as a verb, or a deverbal adjective, not as an intensifier. The examples the OED gives of the use of fucking as an intensifier in various profane contexts start with a 1922 citation from Joyce's Ulysses:
1922 Joyce Ulysses 580 I'll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking king.
But most citations are from the 1960s onwards. Examples of derived uses like How in the fuck should I know (Burroughs, 1959) and Come on, for fuck's sake (Holbrook, 1966) are given from dates much later than the 1890s. Combinations such as fuck about and fuck off are cited from 1929 and 1944 onwards, respectively.
That seems to confirm that modern-sounding uses of fucking were indeed not used in the late 19thC.
However, given the typical time lag between actual usage and that usage showing up in writing (especially with taboo words or coarse language), the following dictionary citation does suggest that the word was around back then, especially in the lower classes or in extra-vulgar speech:
1893 Farmer & Henley Slang III. 80/2 Fucking‥Adj., A qualification of extreme contumely. Adv. Intensitive and expletive; a more violent form of bloody.
The next citation illustrating this usage is the one from Ulysses, quoted above.
In other words, the use of intensifying fucking, in the way fig2 described it, does seem to have been around in the 1890s, though it might not have been used by everyone. Still, it doesn't appear to be "totally out of character", if Van Gogh was given to colourful language, as marietherese said.
Here's a couple more interesting quotes from the OED:
- 1680 Rochester Poems on Several Occasions (1950) 30 Through all the Town, the common Fucking Post, On whom each Whore, relieves her tingling Cunt.
- 1707 see frigging vbl. n.. c 1888–94 My Secret Life III. 228 This house had but eight rooms, and two mere closets to let out for fucking. Ibid. VIII. 307 She wa a magnificent bit of fucking flesh, but nothing more.
Isn't it funny how coarse language continues to fascinate people?
(*) If I dare to use this adjective here.
And Mr.Durick is right about these words being recent to the OED: the wikipedia article tells me that the OED did not incorporate fuck until 1972; idem for cunt. I know that shouldn't surprise me, but still.
This American usage is as strange for us as the related expression: 'You're shitting me', which seems for us to invite 'on' before the 'me'. Otherwise, as written, the sentence implies that the person addressed is the nominated unpleasant human waste.
Such things may seem unimportant, as the meaning is clear to the educated, but when deciding between translations, I would defnitely tend to avoid those which are so distinctively transatlantic.
"The French don't care what you do actually; as long as you pronounce it properly"
If you don't speak at all, they think you're a dummy.
If you speak a little and make an effort, they are very friendly and supportive.
If you begin to speak fairly competently they become EXTREMELY um "helpful" by pointing out every niddly point of grammar and usage that you're fubbing up, you silly foreigner you!
Ones only recourse is to revert to the uniquely French bi-labial plosive indefinite, "Pfffffttttt!".