On June 16 2023, images of a purported French promotional poster for the Barbie movie began circulating on social media, becoming virally popular due to a rumored double entendre (or “error”) in translation.
The ‘French Barbie Poster’ on Social Media
On June 17 2023, the tweet in question appeared alongside a similar tweet in a screenshot on Imgur. On Twitter, @MathildeMerouani provided a translation of the poster, “[Barbie] knows how to do everything,” “[Ken] just knows how to fuck”:
Another Imgur user shared the “French Barbie poster” outside the context of Twitter. Text on the poster read “Elle peut tout faire … Lui, c’est juste Ken“:
Iterations of the “French Barbie poster” and references to a double entendre were commonplace, but appeared almost entirely on social media. Reverse image searches of the poster itself did not lead to an official source indicating whether it was genuine marketing material for the Barbie film.
A search of Google News for references to the authenticity of the French Barbie movie poster did not lead to any corroborating information, as all news-based references to the poster were predicated on the viral and deleted tweet. However, we eventually located versions of the poster on Warner Bros.’ French-language Twitter and Instagram accounts.
‘French Barbie Poster’ Translated
Whether or not the poster was authentic and produced to promote the Barbie film in French-speaking markets, the purported text was on the image.
Google Translate provided the following translation of “Elle peut tout faire … Lui, c’est juste Ken,” from French to English. It appeared to translate to “She can do anything, he’s just Ken”:
On June 17 2023, a curious Reddit user shared the circulating French Barbie poster image to r/French, asking “why” it was considered funny:
A French-speaking user in the comments answered, followed by other users:
“It’s not a translation error per se. It’s an accurate translation of the English tagline (She’s everything; he’s just Ken), but there’s also a double entendre where Lui, c’est juste Ken could also be heard as Lui sait juste ken. Ken is verlan for niquer, so the other meaning is He only knows how to fuck.”
“Or: ‘she can do it all; him, just fucking'”
Downthread, other French speakers continued the discussion:
“Honestly it’s pretty far-fetched, I wouldn’t have thought of that seeing the poster. Not sure it’s /r/ilssavaient material.”
“I imagine it depends on your age, but most French speaking people at a native level who are relatively young (>30ish) do understand the word “ken” immediately. It’s a very well established slang term, definitely not far-fetched.”
“Of course I understand “ken” immediately … But parsing “lui c’est juste” as “lui sait juste” is not obvious, particularly if you don’t particularly expect a joke, like in a normal-looking movie poster. Plus there is a comma after lui, and Ken is capitalized. It works when spoken, and if someone points it out it’s funny, but I doubt most people think of that when they see the poster in the wild.”
The first quoted commenter stated that “Ken is verlan for niquer.” Rosetta Stone’s bloc maintained an entry defining the term:
French slang can be localized and each region will have its own vernacular. There are three kinds of French slang that are in common usage among native speakers: louchébem, argot, and verlan or as the French say—verlan à l’envers.
Verlan is a playful slang popular among youth, where French words are formed by switching the order in which the syllables are pronounced. The word verlan itself is a great example of verlan because it is à l’envers (which means reverse) backward.
Verlan began as a way for people to speak French in code to mask communication, either during wars or revolutions when secrecy was vital. When it was first used, Verlan was reserved for taboo topics like conducting illegal activities. Today, Verlan has crept into much of the slang used in French music, especially hip-hop and other parts of popular French culture.
Wikipedia’s article on the topic had a section, “Word formation [in verlan],” explained how verlan functioned, in a manner similar to English spoonerisms. That section also indicated that verlan was “primarily passed down orally,” perhaps the reason French-speaking Redditors disagreed on whether the double entendre was obvious:
Words in verlan are formed by switching the order in which syllables from the original word are pronounced. For example, français [fʁɑ̃sɛ] becomes céfran [sefʁɑ̃].
Verlan generally retains the pronunciation of the original syllables. However, French words that end in a ⟨e⟩ muet (such as femme [fam]) and words that end in a pronounced consonant (such as flic [flik]) gain the sound [œ] once reversed. In addition, verlan often drops the final vowel sound after the word is inverted, so femme and flic become meuf ([mœf] – meufa in full form) and keuf ([kœf] – keufli in full form), respectively.
The study of written verlan is difficult as it is primarily passed down orally, without standardized spelling. While some still argue that the letters should be held over from the original word, in the case of verlan, most experts agree that words should be spelled as to best approximate pronunciation. For example, verlan is preferred to versl’en. The French author Auguste Le Breton uses numerous examples of verlan, for instance in Du rififi chez les hommes.
On Reddit, another user explained the “inverse” on the Barbie poster image, “niquer” to “forniquer” to “fuck”:
You can even add an extra step, “niquer” come[s] from “forniquer” which is the original verb used to means “to f*CK”
That account linked to a YouTube “Shorts” video, purportedly depicting movies translated from English to French, then back to English. That clip claimed that the film Not Another Teen Movie was translated to Sex Academy in French; if the translations were accurate, they hinted at a tendency toward veiled references to sex and sexuality in French entertainment marketing.
In June 2023, a purported French Barbie movie poster spread virally on Twitter and other social media platforms — due to a slang-based translation suggesting the words translated to something along the lines of “[Barbie] can do anything, [Ken] just knows how to fuck.” The original viral tweet was private as of June 21 2023, and we found iterations of the image on Warner Bros.’ French-language Twitter and Instagram accounts.
As for the French Barbie poster’s translation, French speakers explained that the humor was partly a double entendre (as evidenced by Google Translate’s conversion). However, those users also explained the joke was due to French slang known as verlan, where words are reversed for privacy, primarily among young people.