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Them's Fighting Words: Old French Insults

by Gillian Polack Ph.D.

Illuminations by Gillian Polack
ISBN: 0-9722091-0-7

Old French insults would have been the most common insults to the end of the thirteenth century, not only among French native-speakers and nobles, but also among those with any sort of pretension to nobility or good breeding, unless the individual was strongly anti-French (in which case they would have used English, Welsh, Irish etc depending on where they came from).

Because of this, some more modern English words descend from Old French insults, for instance a variant of pautonnier became poltroon, and felon became a word associated with criminals.

Given the importance of insults in daily life, and given the lack of general availability of Old French insults to modern English speakers, her is a list of useful phrases. To establish this list, our brave authors did not just use dictionaries-they also read a large number of primary sources (the romances were particularly arduous reading).

One of the patterns that emerged in the use of language was that the most colorful language was always to be found in the epic legend, especially around the fight scenes. Insults before fighting or during fighting appear to have been very important. The more romantic a tale, the politer the language, and the bulk of medieval literature is alas, not crude.

In fact, insults relating to body parts and functions really only seem to be found in burlesque literature like the Roman de Renart. A satire of an epic legend (Audigier) instantly signals its satirical nature when the insults change from reflecting lineage and the seven deadly sins, to reflecting more basic matters. In the interests of reader purity, this set of insults is not listed below.

The best place to go to find colorful language is, unsurprisingly, the epic legends, especially the more gruesome of them. The crudeness that you find in satirical works like the Roman de Renart just did not appear to be associated with noble knights in medieval literature. Once you have said longoigne (latrine or cesspool) or coille (stupid, which sounds far less vulgar to us than they would have to the original speakers; the underlying reference is to testicles) you have nowhere but up to go in terms of insults, you have been obscene, and anything else becomes boring.

The fact that language is more colorful in the epic legends and gentler in the romances and more romantic epic legends, means that we can classify words as generally more ladylike and less ladylike. Although it must be noted that these terms are relative and all the terms here are insults found in literature and not everyday Old French.

There are also set phrases that appear as insults, where the combination of words is far more powerful than each single one, and we have placed those phrases in the third category, below. These phrases are specifically for when a writer needs a particularly telling phrase to get a fight started. That is, they are very strong.

All these words had variant spellings according to the dialect and native language of the speaker. Sometimes this is indicated on the lists. All translations are, of necessity, approximate.

For the mildest insults of all, from warrior to warrior, probably calling them a "coward" or a "liar" would suffice. The most useful all-purpose mild insult is fals or faus, which has come down to modern English in the word "false", but had a wider range of meanings in the Middle Ages.

More Ladylike

bastard: bastard, scoundrel

bricon: fool

de put aire: unclean looking, foul

fel, felon: treacherous, wicked

fils de bas, or fille de bas: bastard (male or female respectively)

glos: greedy, rascally

esceor, lecierres, lecheor: debauched person, lecher, gourmand

losangier, losengeor: flatterer, deceiver, rogue

orguillus: proud, haughty

put: dirty, ugly, person who leads a bad life, vile

tricheor: trickster, deceiver (which led to modern English treacherous)

vilain: low person

Less Ladylike

bricon: scoundrel, blackguard, poltroon

colverd, culvert: base, villainous

cuivert maleis: accursed, wicked

fils a puitan, filz a putan: son of a prostitute

glus: glutton (gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins, so this word could be much stronger than it is today - at its worst, it can refer to a devil in a man's body)

merdaille: scum (referring to a group of people)

paltonier, pautoner, pautonier: wicked, rogue, scoundrel, lying rascal

puterelle, puteresse: whore

Fighting Words

faus losengier: traitor

fil a putain, del glouton souduiant: hard to translate, but definitely fighting words!

fis a putain, licheor plain d'anvie: son of a prostitute, envious lecher (or liar, trickster)

glos pautonnier: gluttonous evildoer

le lignage desloial et felon: from an unfaithful and wicked lineage

lichieres pautonnier: wicked evildoer

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