What the insults between students reveal


Insults are those facts of language that hit the school world on a daily basis. Often perceived as violent by the adults who are responsible for countering and sanctioning it, the insult would contravene the proper functioning of the school and the maintenance of a school climate favorable to learning.

However, to understand why we insult, who we insult and how we do it in the particular context of the school, it is also to try to better understand what the school does to the individuals for whom the insult can constitute, under certain conditions and in some contexts, a resource.

Indeed, the use of insult in school context is protean. There is no single way to insult and the meaning given to insults by those who use them and those they designate can vary according to the stakes of the school situations experienced.

A survey in a vocational school

Our analyzes of the insult are based on the use of data from an ethnographic survey (by observations and interviews with students) carried out in vocational high schools in a near suburb of Paris, relatively impoverished. It should be noted that vocational high schools generally welcome students aged 14 to 18 who are preparing for diplomas such as the CAP or the vocational baccalaureate which are supposed to allow rapid integration into employment.

If the landscape of vocational high schools is very varied, it can nevertheless be said, without taking too much risk, that, more often than not, vocational high school guidance has rarely been a choice – it has often sanctioned a markedly chaotic previous school career. by poor school results, repetition, behavioral problems.

But if the insult circulates in a particularly visible way in these spaces often qualified as “difficult”, that does not mean that it would exist only there. Indeed, in various forms, more or less accessible to adult eyes, the insult concerns all stages of schooling and all types of establishments: from nursery school to high school, establishments with popular recruitment, mixed or favored. The use of insults is in fact relatively routine and trivialized in adolescent inter-self.

By narrowing the focus on this segment of the educational system that is the vocational school, I will simply suggest approaching insult and the variety of its uses as possibly revealing the complex relationship of these students to school.

Words of insult

The insult is polysemic and protean. The meaning of the insult, the way in which it is expressed, its consequences vary according to the contexts and the stakes of the situations considered.

The words of the insult are often the same, they are not civilized but intentionally filthy. They mobilize a stereotypical characteristic of individuals which can refer to gender or sexuality “the whore” “the bitch”, the “PD”, “the dalpé”, with the social origin “cas soss”, “trochard · e” , originally migratory “the blédard”, “the negro”, “the mamadou” … or to the intelligence of individuals the “con”, the “moron”.

It does not matter whether the insult states a truth or not, is based or not on a reality, it reminds us that each and every one can be reduced to their sex, their sexuality, their social category, their migratory origin, their his intelligence, real or supposed. Insults function as categories of classification which possibly manifest, in the classes, relations of power, I will come back to this.

Youthful sociability or harassment?

The variety of uses of insult and its contexts of utterance make it possible to grasp its complexity. I will distinguish here three of these uses which, if they are certainly the most frequent, are also those which most appeal to school officials, and more generally still the world of adults.

Thus, the insult can first of all be an insult “for laughs” as the pupils say, to have fun with others as much as with oneself. Arrests thrown around like “Eh nigga”, “Oh, the bitch”, associated with jostling and thunderous laughter make the group of peers exist, manifest as much friendship as they feel.

Because juvenile sociability is a central dimension of the students’ school experience, it allows adolescents – and certainly even more so for those whom the school has been able to discredit – to adapt to spaces and school time, to overcome boredom.

But these forms of insult, often sexualized, sexist and racialized, particularly strike school officials who are then put to the test of the border between the sayable and the unspeakable, between the valve and violence.

The insult can have a completely different function, that of wanting to hurt and inferior the one to whom it is addressed. It can be spoken quietly and repeatedly. It then always targets the same victim who rarely retaliates. In fact, this form of insult can be read and interpreted as harassment.

We find some traces recorded by the teachers in incident reports: “Selma spent all the hour insulting a boy in her class”, “a young girl complains that she receives daily small papers which insult her and the whole class circulate so much”.

These forms of insult are certainly the ones which worry school officials the most. Difficult to grasp because underground, these insults often have dramatic consequences for those who are their victims.


Insult in a school context, and more specifically in class, when students have to deal with school learning situations, whether addressed to other students or to the teacher, may aim to provoke , to oppose head-on, and thus to destabilize, or even prevent the smooth running of class time.

Long interpreted as the manifestation of adherence to an anti-school culture , it is not just that.

Insult by provocation can indeed also manifest the desire to save face or not to lose it when one feels possibly endangered by school activities.

A precise analysis of these uses of insulting forces us to consider that adolescents are in reality rarely indifferent to school judgments. This relative attachment to school verdicts is notably perceptible in the insults of “beans” or “weak” which designate the one who respects the school rules too much and his opposite “the con”, “the moron”, designated as the one who never understands. nothing.

Very frequent among boys, these insults remind us that it is up to them to maintain a fair balance, supposing on their part to succeed in playing the game of school competition, to win it without giving too much to the ordinary functioning of the class.

Author Bio: Severine Depoilly is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Poitiers