In French-Speaking Canada, the Sacred Is Also Profane





MONTREAL -- "Oh, tabernacle!" The man swore in French as a car splashed through a puddle, sending water onto his pants. He could never be quoted in the papers here. It is too profane.

So are other angry oaths that sound innocuous in English: chalice, host, baptism. In French-speaking Quebec, swearing sounds like an inventory being taken at a church.

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms -- and often creative permutations of them -- for swearing.

In doing so, their oaths speak volumes about the history of this French province.

"When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you," said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. "In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms."

And the words that are shocking in English -- including the slang for intercourse -- are so mild in Quebecois French they appear routinely in the media. But not church terms.

"You swear about things that are taboo," said André Lapierre, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ottawa. In the United States, "it is not appropriate to talk about sex or scatological subjects, so that is what you use in your curse words. The f-word is a perfect example.



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