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Is the word paysan insulting in French?

I was listening to a radio report about a recent tractor protest in Paris and heard the reporter refer to the farmers as paysans. It sounded insulting, like they were calling them “peasants” – did I understand correctly?  R.G.

Not really – the French word paysan and English word peasant have the same origins but do not convey the same sense.

The English word, like the French one, originally comes from a medieval French word meaning a “local inhabitant” – someone from le pays, in the sense of “the local area”, as opposed to the usual modern sense of “the country”.

Whereas the English term now suggests someone uneducated and backward, the French one mostly refers, not necessarily insultingly, to small-scale, traditional farmers, especially with old-fashioned mixed farms, as opposed to those who run large industrialised, mass-production ones.

Some people take pride in being a paysan as it can be seen as implying authenticity and being down-to-earth and close to the terroir traditions.

On the other hand, farmers who see themselves as modern and upwardly mobile might take offence.

A website called started by a Corrèze farmer to sell items on a farming and countryside theme sells a T-shirt which says “Paysan et fier de l’être” (Paysan and proud of it).


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