Chronicles

Quebec Swear Words over the Years

Quebec Swear Words over the Years

Illustration de E.-J. Massicotte
(Le Monde illustré, 31 décembre 1898)
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2002-2006, collection numérique

Much like accents, swear words are excellent indicators of people’s roots. The swear words used by the French, for example, are very different than those used by Quebecers. In Quebec, religious vocabulary has had an undeniable effect on swear words – to such an extent, in fact, that swearing and blaspheming are synonymous.

This new series of chronicles takes you into an explosive field of Quebec language. Discover these words which were condemned and repressed and once made people shiver and yet are still used today to express the strongest of emotions.

Click on a title to access an episode or to close the tab.

First episode
Swearing in Keeping with the times
Swearing in Keeping with the times

Illustration de E.-J. Massicotte
(Le Monde illustré, 27 novembre 1897)
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2002-2006, collection numérique

In any society, there are certain prohibitions. Everyone recognizes them and tries to respect them. The fact that swear words transgress these prohibitions gives them their strength. Studying the evolution of swear words in a society can reveal a great deal about the characteristics of that society at different times during its history.

The first swear words used in New France, for which we have found only very few traces, are similar to those used by the French during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They focussed primarily on God.

Either people wore by God (Par Dieu) or by His body, referring to His Head, stomach, wounds or blood or God was reviled: “Je renie Dieu, je vaincs Dieu, je fais du tort à Dieu” ( I renounce God, I defeat God, I do harm to God). According to the legal archives, in 1717, a settler living near Trois-Rivières swore and blasphemed against the Holy Name of God in public [...] saying “sacredieu, mortdieu, ventre Dieu, [...] je renie Dieu, et je renie carême et baptesme et ne veut de mes jours aller à confesse [...]” (Holy God, death of God, stomach of God [...] I renounce God, Lent and baptism and will never go to confession [...]).

At the start of the 19th century, the words Dieu (God), nom de Dieu (name of God) and baptême (baptism) continued to be used, often accompanied by maudit (damn) or sacré (holy). Nevertheless, fewer trials were held concerning such swear words. It appears that these swear words had become widespread or people found them less offensive at a time when the Canadian church, which had become weak, was unable to provide a structure for parishioners.

The situation changed after the rebellions of 1837-1838. The clergy, which had become the defenders of the nation, took charge of several institutions. Partly as a result of better recruiting, the Church assumed more control over the faithful, promoting greater compliance with practices. As of 1`850, new swear words appeared in Quebec, marked by religion. These included Christ (Christ) Vierge (Virgin) and saint (saint). They were followed by ciboire (ciborium), calvaire (calvary) tabernacle (tabernacle) calice (chalice). These swear words became widespread during the years from 1870 to 1880. The swear words used here make Quebec stand out from France, where the church was more discrete and swear words turned to another taboo subject – sexuality.

Quebecers who wanted to swear were familiar with the liturgical vocabulary, which had been instilled in them through education. The prohibition about touching certain objects involved in worship increased the taboo, making the transgression even more powerful. The development of swear words with a religious connotation might indicate a rejection, whether conscious or unconscious, of Roman Catholicism, as it was imposed, since transgressing prohibitions is easier in words than actions. The word hostie (host) used as a swear word appeared in about 1920 along with an increase in the practice of communion. Although the faithful had only taken communion once a year prior to this, at this time they started to take part more frequently, occasionally on a weekly basis.

During the Quiet Revolution, prohibitions concerning the sacred were relaxed, removing a great deal of the force from religious swear words. Sacred swear words became widespread and common. Finally, it should also be noted that in addition to religious swear words, and at all times during Quebec’s history, vulgar words were also used here: trou de cul (asshole), putain (whore), chien (curr) merde (shit) etc.

At certain times, blaspheming against God was a serious offence. People feared divine retribution, which could, for example, take the form of famines or epidemics. To learn more about how swear words were perceived during various periods and the means taken to eradicate this scourge, we invite you to return on October 17, 2006.

Sources
  • HARDY, René. «Ce que sacrer veut dire: à l’origine du juron religieux au Québec», dans Jean Delumeau, et autres, Injures et blasphèmes, Paris, Imago, 1989, pp. 99-125.
  • VINCENT, Diane. «Le sacre au Québec: transgression d'un ordre religieux ou social?», dans Le statut culturel du français au Québec: actes du congrès langue et société au Québec, publié sur Internet à l’adresse suivante: http://www.cslf.gouv.qc.ca/publications/PubF112/F112A8.html

Second episode
Swearing: Scandalous or Commonplace?
Un juron, scandaleux ou banal?

Illustration de E.-J. Massicotte
(Le Monde illustré, 31 décembre 1898)
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2002-2006, collection numérique

What do you think about sending people to prison for using bad language? This situation, which is unthinkable today, was quite possible in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the 18th century, 16% of the accused brought before the royal court were charged with verbal violence and insults. People attacked the honor of others, calling men fripons (knaves), chiens (curs) and coquins (devils) and referring to woman as gueuses (wenches) and putains (whores). When such insults concerned God (blasphemy) or the king, they were considered lese majesty crimes.

What do you think about sending people to prison for using bad language? This situation, which is unthinkable today, was quite possible in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In the 18th century, 16% of the accused brought before the royal court were charged with verbal violence and insults. People attacked the honor of others, calling men fripons (knaves), chiens (curs) and coquins (devils) and referring to woman as gueuses (wenches) and putains (whores). When such insults concerned God (blasphemy) or the king, they were considered lese majesty crimes.

The 1617 blasphemy act provided for a fine for the first offence, a fine and a prison term for the two subsequent offenses, and harsher punishment (often corporal) for the fourth offence. In France, men were even condemned to death for having blasphemed. Blasphemy was frightening since, like witchcraft, it attracted God’s wrath. In the 17th century, in New France, fourteen people were sentenced by the courts for blasphemy. Nevertheless, as of the 18th century, courts in the colony were less inclined to punish blasphemers. Often, they were only sentenced when they were also charged with other crimes.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Church, which was scandalized by the increasingly frequent use of liturgical vocabulary as swear words, took over from the court when it came to judging people who used such language. From 1849 to 1951, there were almost 40 references to blasphemy in the bishops’ orders. Considered a capital sin for Canadians, blasphemy was denounced in sermons, announcements and novenas. The priests condemned blasphemy in the same manner as undisciplined behavior before mass, drunkenness or indecency. Moreover, they increasingly focused on the vulgar nature of the swearing rather than its blasphemous character.

With the deconfessionalization of institutions and the decline in the Church’s influence during the Quiet Revolution, swearing became widespread and common place. In academic circles, the popular language of Quebec is studied for what it is and swear words are considered one of its characteristics. Swear words have even made their way into literature, as in the case of the play Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay and the novel Salut Galarneau! by Jacques Godbout. They are also found in songs, movies, television shows and place names. At certain points in time, swear words have been the trade mark of several union leaders and elected officials. Despite this new-found “glory”, swear words are still considered vulgar and several continue to condemn their use, particularly in educational circles.

Like their French ancestors, Quebecers have long found means to bypass the prohibitions concerning swear words. To learn more about the creativity demonstrated by Quebecers to sweat without really swearing, we invite you to come back on October 31, 2006.

Sources
  • HARDY, René. «Ce que sacrer veut dire: à l’origine du juron religieux au Québec», dans Jean Delumeau et autres, Injures et blasphèmes, Paris, Imago, 1989, pp. 99-125.
  • LACHANCE, André. Crimes et criminels en Nouvelle-France. Montréal, Boréal express, 1984, 184 p.
  • PICHETTE, Jean-Pierre. Le guide raisonné des jurons: langue, littérature, histoire et dictionnaire des jurons, Montréal, Quinze éditeur, 1980, 305 p.

Third episode
Swearing Without Really Swearing

In an effort to avoid reprimands, social disapproval or divine anger, Quebecers quickly learned to swear without actually saying sacrilegious words, as their ancestors did in France. They demonstrated a great deal of creativity in this respect. In Quebec, there are more than 2,000 swear words. Of that number, almost half exist simply to “soften” about 20 or so swear words, which are considered heavy with consequences.

There are several ways in which to get around using a swear word. For example, certain letters or syllables can be removed and replaced with others in order to create a new word. It is also possible to switch the order of letters and syllables. People who do this take care to retain enough similarities with the original word so that there is no doubt as to the source of a new swear word. It is also possible to replace the sacrilegious word with one or more completely neutral words that sound the same. Here are a few examples of these replacement swear words.

Original swear word Altered swear word Swear word chosen for its resemblance
Baptême (Baptism) Batinse
Basouelle
Bateau
Bon Dieu (Good God) Bondance Bombarde
Calice (Calice) Câlasse
Câline
Alice
Calvaire (Calvary) Caltor Joual-vert
Christ Criffe Crime
Ciboire (Ciborium) Archibouère Six boîtes
Corps de Dieu (Body of God) Corbleu Bout de corde
Hostie (Host) Hostifie
Titi (en)
Asphalte
Esprit
Je renie Dieu (I renounce God) Jarnidieu  
Maudit (Damn) Mausus
Saudit
Soda
Mardi
Mort Dieu (Death of God) Morbleu Morue
Tabernacle (Tabernacle) Batarnac
Tabarnique
Tableau
Ta boîte
Vierge (Virgin) Fiarge Cierge

In addition to replacing swear words, there are other options available for people who want to swear without offending God. If they need a strong swear word that transgresses the prohibitions, they can choose to violate the rules of decency with a vulgar profanity such as bordel (brothel) putain (whore) or merde (shit), they can also adopt an inoffensive term such as ambulance (ambulance) or rhubarbe (rhubarb) or they may prefer to use a religious word that has no harmful connotation. In this way, expressions such as doux Jésus (sweet Jesus), bon Dieu de la vie (Good God of life) and pour l’amour du ciel (for heaven’s sake) appear to be divine invocations.

In discourse, replacement swear words and so-called “pure” swear words are used in a rich and varied manner. Some people who swear choose to combine strings of swear words such as sacré maudit calice de saint-ciboire. Others assign them different roles in the sentence. In this way the swear word Christ can be used as an interjection “mon petit crisse”, as a verb “crisse ton camp” and as an adjective “une façon crisse de travailler”.

This is the last in the series of chronicles on Quebec Swear Words over the Years.

Source
  • PICHETTE, Jean-Pierre. Le guide raisonné des jurons: langue, littérature, histoire et dictionnaire des jurons, Montréal, Quinze éditeur, 1980, 305 p.

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Swear words in Quebec place names
Near Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, there is a spot in the Saint-Maurice River where boats have trouble getting through and where exhausted rowers swear considerably. The point located there, the target of much swearing is called “Pointe aux Baptêmes”.