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April, 2007

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Cursing Québecois style
The Word Nerd
by Howard Richler
Tabernacle n.m. : Petite armoire fermant a clé, qui occupe le milieu de l’autel en contient le ciboire. (English translation= tabernacle)
Ciboire: n.m. Vase sacrée en forme de coupe où l'on conserve les hosties consacrées pour la communion. (English translation= ciborium)
In 2006. these definitions could be spotted on billboards, metros and buses in Montreal and were part of a fundraising campaign by the Montreal Archdiocese to reclaim holy language.
Lapsed Quebec Catholics are being reminded of the original religious significance of some of their favourite swear words. For example,  un tabernacle is actually the place where the Eucharist is kept in a Roman Catholic church and hostie refers to the Host, the bread consecrated in the Eucharist and câlice refers to the chalice that symbolically cradles the blood of Christ. These words have nothing to do with being pissed off about matters such as being stuck in a traffic jam or les Canadiens screwing up and missing the playoffs.
Jeez, who knew?
If you’ve had the pleasure of viewing the film Bon Cop, Bad Cop, released in the Summer of 2006, you’ll understand why the Catholic Church felt  it had to reclaim the meaning of some of its holiest artifacts. In one scene, Montreal cop David Bouchard (played by Patrick Huard) is partnered with Toronto cop Martin Ward (played by Colm Feore) and David is busy trying to squish  bad guy Luc Therrien (played by Sylvain Martel) into his car trunk.
Courtesy of producer and script writer Kevin Tierney, here is the dialogue from the scene; it’s a veritable sacré 101: (slightly bowdlerized translation in italics).

Therrien: Mon hostie de câlice de pourris sales!
You blankety blank  pieces of blank.
Bouchard: Surveille ton langage.
Watch your language.
Ward: Qu’est-ce qu’il a dit?
What did he say?
Bouchard: Qu’on est des pourris sales.
He called us pieces of blank.
Ward: Yeah, I got that part, but “hostie de câlice?”
Bouchard: It’s swearing. “Hostie de pourris” is like blank pieces of blank
Mais “hostie de câlice de pourris” ça, ça commence à être vraiment pourri. Mais c’est pas si pire que ça, parce qu’y a déjà quelqu’un qui m’a traité d’hostie de pourri de câlice de tabarnak.
But hosties de calice de pourris is like blankety blank pieces of blank.
Such versatility. The Quebecois group of seven (calice, calvaire, christ, ciboire, hostie, sacrement and tabernacle, each with seemingly infinite spelling variations) has spawned over 1,000 lurid swearing possibilities. This is made possible by the collection of these seven nouns doing up to quadruple duty as verbs, adverbs and adjectives. In the same hilarious scene from the movie, Bouchard explains the linguistic ground rules to Ward:
Bouchard: Tu peux le conjuguer aussi. You can conjugate it, too.
Ward: Oh, you mean like a verb?
Therrien: M’as t’en câlicer une là.
Bouchard: Ah, c’est beau, Luc. Cest un bel exemple, ‘ça, m’a t’en câlicer une ’
Good one, Luc. For example, I’ll blanking give you one.
Bouchard: Tu peux le faire au masculin aussi, comme ‘je vais t’en crisser un.’
Or you could use the masculine and say, ‘Here’s a hell of a whack.’
Therrien: Toé, mon tabarnak là…
You utter blank.

In most societies there is a tendency for people to stop using religious swear words once the populace became more secular. In Quebec, however, the opposite process has occurred.
It seems the use of sacrés originated in Quebec sometime between 1825 and 1850 and Quebeckers, frustrated by the oppressive control exercised  by the Catholic Church, used some of the holiest words of Catholicism as a means to vent their spleen.
One of the oldest sacrés registered is sacrament, which is documented as being used by 1830 in Quebec. Legend has it that lumberjacks retreated into forests and held swearing contests to see who could unleash the most sacrilegious invective. This apparently released some of the anger the axemen felt towards their local clergy.
Of course, it is prudent that the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune be invective rather than axes cast at clergy.
So if you want to enhance  your colloquial Quebecois French, rent Bon Cop, Bad Cop. Just don’t tell your parish priest that it was my idea.
Howard Richler’s book Global Mother Tongue was released this February by Véhicule Press.

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