Put Out by Putin - Frank McNally on the perils of undiplomatic language

It may be time for an audit of all body-based metaphors

Reading newspapers in Paris recently, I noticed the habit there of writing the surname of a certain Russian president as “Poutine”. Such variant spellings sometimes arise from the difficulty of reproducing the original sound in a different language. But in this case, I gather, the reason is more diplomatic.

Were the French to spell Putin the way we do, the local pronunciation would be identical to “putain”, a term whose primary meaning is “whore”, but which also serves as a multi-purpose swear word in France.

Among the usages cited by my Collins-Robert is “putain de réveil!”, something you shout at your alarm clock when it rings too early.

Rugby fans may remember another example from an immortal day at Stade de France in 2018 when, with another clock in the red, a desperate, 41-phase Irish move ended with Johnny Sexton kicking a drop goal from half-way to win the game.


Amid subsequent scenes of slow-motion despair, a local TV director captured a French player staring in disbelief at the big screen and apparently pronouncing the name of the Russian president, but without an “e” at the end.

“Poutine” is not without its confusions either. In Francophone Montreal, it’s also a kind of fast food, involving “French fries, cheese curds, and gravy”. But even there, calling somebody “poutine” would not be an insult. As dubious as it sounds, the dish is vastly popular.


The poet Philip Larkin, born 100 years ago on Tuesday, does not require a terminal “e” in French. Perhaps only in Australia or New Zealand, where his name is close to “larrikin”, meaning a “boisterous, often badly behaved young man”, might its pronunciation be embarrassing.

It was Larkin’s work, by contrast, that presented challenges for editors, using as it often did what we call bad language. Whether language can ever bad when contributing to good poetry is an interesting question.

Either way, the fact is that Larkin’s best-remembered poem starts with the line: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” And the result, according to at least one critic, is that the f-word is now “canonical”.

Larkin spent formative time in Ireland, including a period as librarian in Queen’s University. This helps explain a later comment when, on the subject of how to eat well in Dublin, he advised: “Take sandwiches from Belfast.”

On the other hand, his 1970 poem Dublinesque, describing a funeral procession in that city, is broadly affectionate. And speaking of putains, the deceased party of the verse appears to have been a member of the oldest profession, because the hearse is followed by “a troop of streetwalkers”.

But the tone is not judgmental, especially in the closing lines: “As they wend away/A voice is heard singing/Of Kitty, or Katy,/As if the name meant once/All love, all beauty.” Whether any of the happened is another question. He claimed the idea for the poem came to him in a “dream”.


Still with troublesome language, a colleague tells me of an inter-generational misunderstanding involving a friend of his recently. The friend was trying to console a “young lady in an office who had had some sort of setback”. So doing, he said: “You’ll be ok, you’ve got broad shoulders”.

The shoulders he was thinking of were metaphorical, clearly. But she thought it a reference to her actual shoulders. Word got out that he had “body shamed” her.

He then had to explain that the phrase she had never heard before was a compliment, not an insult. And when my correspondent told the story to another colleague, also from the “next generation”, he discovered she had never heard of the expression before either.

Perhaps, if similar embarrassments are to be avoided in future, it may be time for an audit of all body-based metaphors. Here goes.

Having a “good head” for anything seems secure for now, as does a “safe pair of hands”. In journalism, at least, a “real nose” – so long as it’s for a news story – is still universally considered a positive attribute too.

But suggesting that someone has the “stomach” for a fight, or for anything, may be more problematical. As for praising an artistic acquaintance’s “good eye”, you may first want to rule out strabismus or any related condition that could undermine your compliment to an eye singular.

A “stiff upper lip” could hint at botox use these days. “Cultured left foot” might imply a fungal condition. It need hardly be added that in Ireland, paradoxically, possession of any kind of a “neck” has never been considered a good thing.