French Friday: When Your Born-American Toddler Swears in French

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay

I envy my son’s exceptional memory. Maybe all these music sheets he has to memorize because he’s a musician help. No, it’s just natural, I think, since he has always been able to remember anything and everything since he’s very little. Including stuff his mother didn’t ask him to remember.

The youngest in the family, my son was with me most of the time before he started kindergarden. He didn’t talk much, but I knew it was his personality and not a language issue since he understood absolutely everything whether in French or in English. At home, I only spoke French with him.

In the car too.

Where we spent quite some time, either dropping his sisters off at dance class or at a friend’s for a playdate or a birthday party or still picking them up after gymnastics or a piano lesson.

We had left Massachusetts where my son was born and had returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. I immediately noticed that people drove far less courteously in 2000 than they used to in the early 90s. Due to the recent massive migrations toward this compact area, traffic was horrendous. Since I always carried a precious cargo I was prudent and intended to keep calm under all circumstances.

When I had been surprised and amused to notice drivers using the fast lane while applying makeup or browsing through the morning edition of the San Francisco Chronicle in my early American days, I was now shocked to see so many tailgating, cutting, and even giving the finger, a gesture that is used with more parsimony in France than in the US. On the other side, French drivers cuss more often than their American counterparts.

I didn’t. Much. Remember, I had always at least one child in the car with me. So if I did use a bad word I muttered between my teeth. Always in French, naturally.

One day, as I was driving through packed streets, my son buckled up in his car seat right behind me, my mother-in-law next to him and my father-in-law riding shotgun, a driver passed my car only to slam right in front of me to avoid the path of an oncoming car.

My son exclaimed in a clear loud voice, “Connard!”

My father-in-law stifled a laugh and said, “Right, petit. That driver was very rude. And dangerous too. He didn’t even use his blinker.”

My mother-in-law leaned over and said, “Tell my son to watch his language or his own son will soon swear like a sailor.” Which in French is like a charretier or a carter.

“Our grandson is only repeating what he hears,” my father-in-law went on. “And it doesn’t come from his mother for sure.”

My son had remained silent since his expletive. I peeked in the rear mirror to check on him and caught him staring straight at me with an angelic smile.

“Maman,” he said.

One word was enough to prove my husband innocent.

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay

Later that night, when the kids were tucked in bed, my in-laws begged me to tell the “funny” story that happened in the car.

“Evelyne never uses this word,” my husband said.

“But how could he have heard and memorized it?” I said, partly to keep my husband from listing the other bad words I could have used, mostly embarrassed to see that he was taking full responsibility for our son’s choice of language. “After all,” I insisted. “He’s always with me.”

“Don’t underestimate those Sunday rides,” he concluded.

In the end, we’ve never known for sure who taught our son this French cursing word.

What we do know, though, is that he has expanded his French vocabulary in this particular field. No doubt due to his soft spot for French cops movies but also to his exceptional memory.

If only he could stop memorizing what his mother didn’t ask him to remember.


P.S. Although the author of this recent blog post is right: the French expletive “connard” is crude, some American equivalents are as vulgar.

As any cursing word, it depends on the context and circumstances, right?

From Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay





  1. I think connard seems quite mild compared to some much more descriptive swear word that British driver will use (gesture added too) …

    • You reassure me, Pascale 🙂
      I’m surprised by your comment about the Bristish. I assumed they were all so civil and well-behaved 🙂
      But I never drove in the UK!
      Thank you for stopping by.

  2. My son’s first clear word was “shit.” He bonked his knee on the coffee table. My mother was (of course!) in the living room. She called EVERY member of the family. It became legend.

    • This is too funny! This kind of story is sure to become legend.
      You make me feel better too. My son already spoke, but this French slur was his first one for sure. Not the last as you read 🙂
      For some reason kids memorize these words better than others. When I had my kids’ friends over they loved to ask me if I knew bad words in French. I played deaf to avoid issues with their parents!

  3. connard ! Toujours très en vogue, même si bien d’autres concepts – 🙂 – sont venus enrichir le lexique !

    • Je m’en doute 🙂 Sans doute certains en anglais même. J’aurais aimé que mon fils évite de partager ses impressions avec ses grand-parents, mais cela reste une histoire de famille amusante et un sujet de billet! Depuis ce jour j’ai vraiment surveillé mon language en présence de mes enfants. Même si personne ne saura vraiment qui de moi ou de mon mari a dit Connard!

  4. That’s a funny story. It would have been funny without the French speaking audience, but that must have been awkward. Sorry, i did laugh a bit thinking of your situation.

    Children pick up words and the context in which they are used. It often leads to comedy.

    • It was funny, although at the exact second when my son uttered this vulgar French word I wanted to disappear. He was very young and I had the feeling that my in-laws were discovering a new woman. Honestly, I still believe that in their mind their son was responsible. Which he was quick to admit. No doubt to protect my reputation. Who knows for sure? We both knew this word anyway 🙂
      Children are capable to pick on anything and even toddlers understand nuance and context. This taught me a lesson: watch your language and behavior with kids.
      Glad the story and my post made you laugh. Whatever the language the situation rings a bell to most parents.

  5. I remember having to tell our youngest that those were “daddy words.” Although I did use such language, I honestly never did in front of the kids. For a long time, whenever she got mad, she would say, “Oh! …DADDY WORDS!!”

    • That’s too funny, Maria. My mom said that since she never ever uttered one single cursing word in her life. When she was angry she would say, “Zut.” Which is not even the equivalent of Shoot. My dad did curse when he fixed his car 🙂
      So I must have learned a few back then.
      But with my son, I was honestly suprised since my most common expletive is not the one he picked. So maybe it was a Daddy’ word after all. Or rather a Papa’s word.

  6. Ah, yes, it’s all relative and contextual.
    It IS a funny story 🙂

    • Thanks, Joey. I’m sure you’ve been through similar situations with your kids, right?
      They read context so well, even at a really young age.
      This remains a funny memory for me and at least helped me write a French Friday post.
      Enjoy your Labor Day weekend!

  7. Great story. I was swearing like a trooper by the time I was 8 or 9, though I didn’t know what some of the words meant. Not sure where I picked it up, but probably at school because my parents weren’t cussers and you know my grandmothers weren’t! Along with the curse words, I also picked up on how people reacted to them. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was OK to use them with most peers but adults usually reacted with embarrassment, shock, or anger. So one did not use these words in class or church or at the dinner table. I’m still pretty loose with my four-letter words. They’re like oral punctuation. But from time to time I think that if either my parents or my grandparents had used these words when they were my age (66), the earth would have wobbled on its axis.

  8. I like your story too, Susanna 🙂
    Agree that at a young age we are very well aware of the impact of our words and how and when use the bad ones.
    For a while my husband and I thought that our kids didn’t understand French as perfectly as we do, so we would sometimes talk privately in French, using some slang words in the mix. But we never fooled them. They always knew what we were discussing.
    My mother was very mad whenever my sister of I used a bad French word. Which was never that bad, But for her so many were. Like your grandmothers.

  9. This story made me laugh – I like how your son gave you away by uttering your name and how your husband tried to back you up. My French-speaking husband and I are raising our children bilingually in the French-speaking part of Switzerland — he always speaks to them in French, and me in English — so chez nous it is very clear when a certain word is coming from me! (Unfortunately…) He is lucky that he can point to other people as being the source of all the gros mots that our children know — although he can’t deny that p u t a i n came from him. Oops.

    • And your story makes me laugh, too! I need to visit your blog now that you are mentioning your family situation. It’s never easy for kids to grow up in a bilingual family. But it creates some funny moments too. Thank you, for stopping by and for your great comment.

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