Screwing things up

north_face_south_tower_after_plane_strike_9-11I first heard about the 9/11 attacks while sitting in my office.  I’d just eaten my peanut butter sandwich–3 hours before lunch.  Crap.  My wife called: a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.  Private plane?  Airliner?  Accidentally?  On purpose?  No one knew.  Soon she called back: the other tower had been hit, too.

All of the news sites were crashing under the load, but one of my office mates had a radio–not a common thing in those days.  People gathered around; we listened as the towers fell, as the Pentagon was hit, as Flight UA93 went down in Pennsylvania.

One of the grad students wasn’t quite there with the rest of us, though.  After an hour or two, he said: this is huge, and the repercussions of this are going to be playing out for years, but I really need to get this assignment finished.  …and he went back to hacking.

Personally, I was useless for the rest of the day.  Around noon, it seemed pretty clear that nothing else was going to happen, and I went home to see if I could catch it on TV.  We talked about how to break the news to my kid.  We found out how to donate blood.  I spent hours on the phone trying to make sure that my cousin who spent a lot of time at the Pentagon was OK.  Work: not at all.

I felt pretty much the same today.  6 AM China time found me sitting in front of my computer watching the first returns come in.  By mid-morning, I did what I do when I’m really, really unhappy: I crawled into bed and went to sleep.  When I got up an hour later, the situation was even worse.  The rest of the day was spent flipping between NBC and the Politico web site, where I watched the pool of red spread across the country.  Normally when I’m anxious, I deal with it by working.  A very adaptive response, I find–but, I was way beyond anxiety.  As bizarre as this will sound: I found myself passing the time waiting for Trump to give his acceptance speech making French vocabulary flash-cards, because that’s at least easy and distracting, and it gave me a way to think about something other than the fact that a complete assclown had just been elected president of the most powerful country in the world (for the moment–until he fucks it up; assclown explained below in the English notes).  When it was all over, I found myself doing something that I haven’t done in a long, long, long time: watching cartoons on TV.  They were on the one French-language station that I’ve found in China. It was about ninja cats.  They used the subjunctive, so I’m counting it as studying.


As it happens, I’ve been trying to find a good French equivalent for the American English expression “to screw (something) up” or “to mess (something) up.”  I’ve been using merder, but I have a feeling that it’s too vulgar for a lot of contexts.  Sometimes you come across things right when you need them, and as I watched a lot of American voters screw up very badly, I came across foirer and faire foirer.  I found these definitions of them:

  • foirer: to screw (something) up, to mess (something) up (WordReference).  To mess up, to go wrong, to fail (Reverso.net).
  • faire foirer: to mess (something) up (Collins)

OPUS2 is a collection of millions of words in the same text translated between about 40 different languages–what’s known as a parallel corpusEUROPARL is another parallel corpus–a collection of the proceedings of the European Parliament translated between all of the languages of the European Union.  I searched them through the Sketch Engine web site’s interface.

Seems relatively innocuous.  However, looking at translations on line, I think it might be stronger than the dictionary suggests.  I found translations along the lines of “screw/mess up,” but I also found plenty of “fuck up,” particularly in the OPUS2 corpus.  And, foirer doesn’t show up even once in the EUROPARL corpus, which is consistent with the idea that it might not be as socially acceptable as the WordReference and Collins definitions suggest.  (Neither does merder.)  Here are some examples of both, from OPUS2 and from the Linguee.fr web site.

Foirer:

  • Tu foires tout!  You’ve done nothing but screw up!  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai tout foiré I messed up bad.  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai eu ma chance et j’ai foiré.  I had my chance, and I muffed it.  (OPUS2)
  • C’était comme un mariage foiré.  It was like a really fucked up wedding.  (OPUS2)
  • Et qu’arrivera-t-il si je foire tout encore une fois?  What happens if I fuck up again?  (OPUS2)
  • II y a huit jours, vous êtes arrivé défoncé à une simple néphrectomie, vous l’avez foirée, mis le patient en syncope en le tuant presque.   Eight days ago you showed up half-stoned for a simple nephrectomy … botched it, put the patient in failure, and damn near killed him.  (OPUS2)
  • Ça foire quand on arrive aux desserts.  It always goes wrong when we come to the desserts.  (OPUS2)
  • Depuis que je suis rentré, je foire tout ce que j’entreprends.  It’ s just that since I got back, it seems like the only natural talent I got is for screwing up.  (OPUS2)
  • J’ai foiré mon audition aujourd’hui.  I did terribly at an audition today.  (OPUS2)
  • Si ça a foiré , je veux savoir comment.  If this is fucked up, I wanna know how.  (OPUS2)
  • Nous avons tenté de faire une tournée à l’étranger et deux tournées étaient presque confirmées mais bien sûr elles ont foiré à la fin.  We tried to get some abroad tour and two tours were already nearly confirmed but of course in the end they fucked up.  (Linguee.fr)
  • Ceci est susceptible de faire foirer votre partenaire, puisqu’il a alors un temps mort, et qu’il ne relancera donc pas la…  This trick is likely to make your partner fuck up the pattern as she gets a ‘hold’, and thus won’t be passing back the same… (Linguee.fr)  (I put this under faire rather than faire foirer because it’s the partner who’s going to foirer–a different construction from faire foirer followed by a direct object, I think.)
  • …lieu 20 minutes avant que CATHEDRAL ne monte sur scène : j’ai littéralement foiré ma performance à cause du style vocal ! …literally 20 minutes before CATHEDRAL was due to play on stage, so I literally fucked my performance due to the vocal style!  (Linguee.fr)  (Can’t wait to see the reactions to avant que…ne monte!)

Faire foirer:

  • Vous faites foirer le plan.  You’re screwing up the plan.  (OPUS2)
  • Seulement si tu fais tout foirer.  Only if you blow it, dear.  (OPUS2)
  • Il me plaît vraiment, alors ne fais pas tout foirer.  I really like him, so don’t screw this up.  (OPUS2)
  • C’est comme si tu voulais tout faire foirer.  It’s like you’re actually trying to screw this up.  (OPUS2)
  • Mais j’ai juste tout fait foirer pour tout le monde.  …but I’ve just messed up everything for everyone.  (OPUS2)
  • Ensuite, le bureau central fait tout foirer.  And the Central Office then proceeds to screw everything up.  (OPUS2)
  • Nous sommes en parfaite osmose avec Waldemar et nous ne pouvions pas nous permettre de tout faire foirer We are in perfect osmosis with Waldemar and we could not allow ourselves to screw everything up.  (Linguee.fr)

Native speakers: how about it?  Can I say merder at work?  Can I say (faire) foirer at work?  In front of a friend’s children?  In front of a friend’s mother?  Input appreciated.  Like the grad student said: the repercussions of yesterday’s American presidential election are going to be playing out for years, and I think that I’m going to be needing a way to talk about how badly the American voter has “screwed things up” for quite a while to come…

English notes

In Assholes: A theory of Donald Trump (originally published under the title Assholes: A theory) the philosopher Aaron James defines assholes in general like this:

A person counts as an asshole, when and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.

As described in John Kelly’s article In honor of the GOP nominee: What exactly is an assclown?, originally from the Strong Language blog, James goes on to develop a typologoy of assholery; assclown in particular is defined as follows:

…someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.

17 thoughts on “Screwing things up”

  1. Funny you should mention “waking up.” I’m a big believer in the restorative powers of a good night’s sleep, but some things just don’t get better the next morning–so far: my grandmother’s death, and this.

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  2. I wrote a bit about a solution for The Event in the last comment of your previous article, after language considerations . For me all comes from the English, Puritans AND money makers who settled the future mental frame of the future master of the world the way we’ve seen it for the last two centuries . The second modern times major drama for an hypothetic future humanity was the fact the English settled the mind of North America (the first was when the Northern Barbarians settled the future mental frame of the future Europe after having slaughtereded Occitania’s spirit) . All this is personal of course .

    “Coming back to our sheep”, you can use foirer in most places now . Not in court, not with the Pope, but it’s not a swear word . The difference between foirer and faire foirer is subtle . Faire foirer means there is an intermediate between the culprit and the mess, either someone else for sure, but it can be a machine or even a chain of events . It’s not very clear, nor important, but foirer alone implies a clear culprit and a quick or immediate result .

    In Trump and poor USA case you can’t say ” il va merder le pays” but “Trump va merder” or “Trump va faire merder le pays” . But merder is a swear word . There are quite some proper verbs like gâcher for a task or a chance, dégrader, abimer, endommager, ruiner, and quite some colloquial ones like bouziller, foutre en l’air, plus some sexually rooted ones like niquer, baiser .
    Come on, nothing like a good peyote trip to face catastrophes . If you survive you’re stronger . And you’ll need it .

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  3. Obviously I can’t comment as a native speaker, but given the examples, it strikes me that there might not be such a strong French cultural taboo to all the senses of “faire foirer” as there is for the “fucked up” sense in English. Indeed, for some English speakers, “fucked up” is everyday conversational.

    The wife and I joined friends in Fort Collins to commiserate. We took some French wine, five French cheeses from Cheese Importers, gifts from France, and photos from our recent trip to Provence. We had a very nice afternoon modulo an occasional but necessary rant. There’s much that can be said about the election, but for the four women with whom I spent the afternoon felt betrayed and hurt by their fellow citizens, especially those women who chose to support the man.

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  4. Thoughts on screwing up – try the French term Foutre – c’est foutu meaning its fuck up or simply broken- foutre en l’air – to totally crew something up as in causing upheaval in the established order. Thoughtful piece.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestions (and the kind words). Incidentally, I understand that there’s a difference between foutu as a predicative adjective and as an attributive adjective–“ce stylo est fout” = “this pen is broken/out of order forever”, versus “ce foutu stylo” = “this damn pen” = it’s not working as I would like it to at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be working two minutes from now. Is that actually the case, native speakers?

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      1. You are right. Le style set foutu meaning it is f***ed as opposed to ce foutu stylo which would be this f*****g pen. C’est foutrement foutu – it is f*****g f****d.

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  5. Yes it is the case . Incidentally “Ce foutu stylo ! ” can be said politely “Ce sacré stylo !” . Sacré is one of the funny adjectives that change their meaning according to their position . Un vase sacré means either holy or untouchable . Ce sacré vase! can be said “Ce foutu vase !”
    Foutre originally means to fuck . Sade’s books are full of the original meaning of foutre .

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    1. Thanks! I came across this in an email this morning: ” Et ça ne te fout pas en rogne ?? ” I’m guessing that that means “And that doesn’t piss you off?” …or maybe “And that doesn’t irritate you?”

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