When French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to “emmerder” the unvaccinated in France, he did not just throw down the gauntlet on his Covid policies, he also sparked a fervent linguistic debate.
The word emmerder is a verb derived from the noun merde, which in English literally translates to “shit”. But properly translating emmerder is far from straightforward, leaving the international media struggling to find the best equivalent. Did Macron want to “fuck” the unvaccinated? To “piss them off”? To “hassle” them? To “annoy” them?
Official translation aids were of little use in this instance: parallel corpora, which can be a useful tool to see how a word or an expression is usually rendered in another language, are mostly made up of semi-official texts, where such a word would never appear. Even the corpus of translations from the European Parliament’s proceedings displays only one example of the verb, and it is translated as “annoy”, which is more often used as a translation of the much more polite irriter.
Part of the difficulty comes from the derogatory nature of the remark. “Hassle” or “annoy” erase the more colourful dimension of this profanity, perhaps in line with different editorial standards of some English-language media.
But losing the derogatory dimension of the verb means losing part of its meaning: translating meaning is not only a matter of factual accuracy, it is also a matter of speaker intention. To capture the expressive meaning of emmerder, we need to look not just at the word itself, but at the comprehensive speech act of Macron’s entire statement.
So what does it really mean to use the sentence, “I would very much like to emmerder the unvaccinated”?
Taking “shit” verbs seriously
Emmerder literally means “to cover someone with shit”, but it has long since lost its original meaning. The meaning that has received most attention since Macron’s statement is an expressive variety of irriter, “to annoy”, with an additional note of contempt for the irritated person’s opposition to their predicament.
But there are other uses, which are best understood if the French language’s vast trove of “shit” verbs is taken into consideration.
The basic derogatory verb for pooing in French is chier. There is also a transitive version of this verb, which can be used to frame the person or the thing being covered with faeces as a direct object: conchier. Conchier also has another meaning: “to have extreme contempt or hatred for someone or something”.
Today, people usually use a prepositional construction, “chier sur quelque chose” or “chier dessus” (both meaning “to shit on”). There is also what grammarians call a causative for chier: “to have someone shit, to make someone shit” is to faire chier. This is an approximate equivalent to emmerder: to annoy, to bother, to piss off.
Both faire chier and emmerder also have a pronominal version, too: se faire chier or s’emmerder, both meaning “to be bored”. Note that their more formal equivalent is also a pronominal verb, s’ennuyer, whose non-pronominal variant, ennuyer, means nothing else than… “to annoy”.
So, there is a system here: whether polite or profane, the reflexive of “to annoy” means “to get bored”. Correspondingly, chiant and emmerdant have become synonyms, meaning annoying, tedious and boring.
Considering all these different meanings and formulations, “being a pain in the ass for someone” may actually seem a convenient proposal for Macron’s use of emmerder. But most speakers of both languages would probably argue that something is lost here.
I want to claim that what is lost has much to do with the major difference between emmerder and the chier-family: the fact that the former can no longer be used to refer to any concrete situation involving faeces.
The key to understand this is the special relationship between emmerder and the first-person subject (je in French, I in English). I argue that this specific factor is what caused Macron’s statement to upset many people, as he used the first person: “Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder.”
“J’emmerde les non-vaccinés” would actually mean something between “I don’t give a shit about these people” and “they can kiss my ass”. Similarly, “Je t’emmerde” means “Get off, to hell with you”.
One of the ways to perform this kind of rebuke in French would be to simply utter the slur “Merde!”, not as an interjection expressing surprise, disapproval or rage, but as a demonstration of opposition to the person speaking to you. “Je vous dis merde!” (“I say ‘shit’ to you!”) also carries that meaning.
Remember that unlike the verbs from the kinship of chier, emmerder can no longer be used to designate anything to do with actual faeces. It is thus highly plausible that nowadays, the merde in emmerder does not refer to excrement, but to the slur itself: emmerder does not mean “cover someone with shit”, but “to say ‘shit’ to someone”.
In the first person, “saying ‘shit!’ to someone” does not mean “addressing the word ‘shit’ at someone”. It means, somewhat redundantly, “doing what you do when you say ‘shit’ to someone”, namely: annoying them, or pissing them off. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein would say, the actual meaning of that phrase can be found in the goal of the “language game” of uttering it at all.
In a nutshell: emmerder has lost its original meaning; it now always means “to annoy” with the additional component of profanity associated with the utterance of merde. In the first person, it is synonymous with “say merde”; and “saying merde” is a conventionalised speech act whose meaning is to annoy the addressee.
So, why not assume that emmerder always means “doing what you do when you say ‘merde!’ or ‘je t’emmerde!’ to someone”, even when you do it by other means than by uttering that word?
The implication would be that there has been meaning change of “saying merde” and emmerder, from the utterance of a word to the act which can be fulfilled, among other means, by uttering that word.
This kind of change is not unique, it is characteristic for “performatives”. Performative verbs are verbs of speech used in the first person in frozen constructions and contexts, by someone who has the ability to fulfil this action by speaking it. For example, the president of a commission who opens hearings merely by saying something like, “I declare open the second day of hearings”.
Anything said by the president of France is definitively invested with this performative capacity. Consider Macron’s full statement: “I very much want to emmerder the non-vaccinated, so we’re going to go on like that right until the end.”
The second half is a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of the president’s first-person speech in the real world.
But of course, the president did not say “j’emmerde les non-vaccinés” (“I emmerde the unvaccinated”), but “j’ai très envie de les emmerder” (“I very much want to emmerde the unvaccinated”).
So what about this “avoir envie de” or “want to”? The presence of this auxiliary is enough to make the performative interpretation less strong, but it doesn’t erase it, especially in the context of a holder of legislative power speaking in the first person.
The ambiguity of the utterance and the difficulty in translating it arise from this in-between-state: Macron has not accomplished the performative act; he has just commented on his willingness to do so and on the fact that the desired result will come true.
Emmerder: a comprehensive view
If this view is correct, the problem with the translations proposed for “emmerder” is due to the fact that they focus on the effect of the designated action on the subjects (in this case, the unvaccinated) instead of insisting on the very specific agency carried by this verb, especially in the context of the first person and when the speaker enjoys a peculiar performative linguistic power.
Defending this unified view of the meaning of emmerder as “to annoy someone like you do it when you say ‘merde!’ or ‘je t’emmerde!’ to them”, we can assume that each context feature enriches or specifies the basic meaning of the verb. Each of the proposed translations thus captures a facet of meaning.
In this case, we are faced with a very special speaker and with a grammatical construction discreetly referring to the performative component of emmerder. Here, focusing on the word itself instead of considering the whole utterance leads us to miss an important feature of Macron’s statement: he not only wants to have the unvaccinated eat shit, he also wants to tell them to do so and go to hell, in his capacity as head of state.
Everything here is linked to the choice of a deliberately transgressive word by a very powerful person – the breaking of ordinary language rules by a head of state is already a signal that a demonstration of strength is underway.
What makes this statement remarkable from the point of view of language is that, as a speech act, it forms a highly consistent whole. All of the loose meaning features associated with the use of emmerder are tightly linked with and support one another: hassling, swearing and the capacity to enforce are shown to be one and the same thing. Some would call this power.