When learning French, we are usually taught a very formal version of the French language. This is because it is assumed that most people will be using their intermediate level French for business or simply on holidays. So you learn your French vocabulary and French grammar, perfect your French pronunciation, memorize your verbs and make sure your adjectives agree. But once you get out onto the street, you will find that colloquial French is not quite the same thing.
It’s not just how you pronounce it. It’s the difference in rhythm and, most importantly perhaps, in vocabulary. In fact, a lot of French people use French slang terms in everyday life. While they might not speak completely in “argot”, slang phrases and idiomatic expressions abound, not just in cafés along the Seine, but also in French movies and French books.
So to help you out when you are ready to move on to advanced French and go from “bonjour!” to “salut!” (a word that can also mean “au revoir”), here are some basic French words that your French teacher never taught you.
This is not the true argot, or street slang, which seems to invent new words hourly, but instead focuses on informal French that you might encounter every day.
People are all around you. In French class, you were taught to interact with them, learned all the French greetings and how to say “Monsieur” and “Madame”. But start a conversation with a French speaker and the masculine and feminine suddenly have other names.
In common French usage, you might end up hearing a sentence like one of these:
“Le mec là-bas a l’air trop beau!” That bloke over there is so cute!
“T’as vu la nana? Je suis à peine plus grande qu’elle!” “See that girl? I’m hardly much taller than her!”
“Boah, la gonzesse, quelle emmerdeuse!” “Gods, that girl, she gets on my nerves!”
“Mec” and “nana” are fairly standard words for a man (mec) and woman (nana) and are fairly neutral. You probably wouldn’t use them to designate your closest friends, but they’re not pejorative. “Gonzesse” is a little less common word for a woman and is not quite as flattering, though it’s not an insult per se.
In idiomatic French, a “nana” is not jsut someone’s nan – it can be a woman of any age. Photo credit: Matthew Juzenas on VisualHunt.com
Here is a list of words you can use to refer to children:
You can use these to refer to your own children without being branded a bad parent:
“Allez, les mômes, on rentre. Il fait tard.” “Come on kids, we’re going home. It’s late.”
Teenagers are “ados”, a shortened form of “un adolescent”.
When making up your vocabulary flashcards, don’t forget the slang word for mouth: “gueule” (also used in: “ta gueule!”, shut your trap). Above “la gueule” there is “ le pif”, the nose, and on either side “les esgourdes” or “étiquettes” (the ears). To go further down the body, you also have “un bide” (a stomach) and, corresponding in back, “un cul” (an arse). Don’t pronounce the final L in “cul” (it’s kü).
Don’t know the argot for “hand”? You can always try slang dictionaries such as Dictionnaire de la Zone or this online French French argot dictionary (you can say it different ways, including “pattes” or “patoches”).
Ever been pulled over by the flics on your way to the toubib?
A “flic” is a bobby, a police officer. It’s attested since the turn of the 19th/20th century and its origin is unclear. It could be an onomatopeia referring to the tap-tap of a police baton on the cobbles, or is possibly derived from German “Fliege” (fly – ”mouche” is another French word for policeman).A “toubib” translates as “doctor”. Like several other argot words, this one comes from Arabic.
When learning about French history, you might have heard about the wars in Algeria. It took the French twenty years to conquer it, and its decolonisation was a bloody war that lasted eight years. Neither side has forgiven the other. On the other hand, French soldiers brought back many Arabic words, such as tabib for a doctor. Other words of Arabic slang came into the French language through North African immigrants.
“Niquer” is another French oath that originates from Arabic. But just because you speak argot doesn’t mean you can spell. This fellow, instead of telling someone to f*** their mother, but is instead encouraging them to have sex with the mayor. Photo credit: Môsieur J. [version 9.1] on VisualHunt.comWhile we’re talking of professions, don’t forget “d’aller au boulot” (go to work) every day at your “boîte” (company).
When you find a nice “mec”, he might be “balaise” (strong, muscled), but be careful that he’s not “dingue” (crazy). The word “dingue” applies to people and things – you might yell out “non mais il est dingue!” if you were cut off in traffic, for instance, or say of the special effects in the new Star Wars movie: “les effets spéciaux étaient dingues! Jean va flipper!”
Just hope that he’s not a “con” (or a “conne”, if it’s a woman). “Con” or “connard” is an insult that politely translates as “stupid idiot”, though there are some choice English slang words starting with “w” that might be a more accurate translation.
When you think of French culture, you think of food. Come on, you did, didn’t you? So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there is a number of French slang words and phrases centred around eating. Here’s a little culinary lesson for you:
When it’s been a few hours since you last ate, you can say “j’ais la dalle” (I am hungry).
Now, a “dalle” can be translated as a tile or flagstone, but in Old French the meaning was a gutter or gully; it soon designated the gully down which you throw your food. “Avoir la dalle” is short for an expression that hasn’t survived, perhaps “avoir la dalle vide” (have an empty gullet). You can also say “je crève la dalle”.
Once you’ve got your meal, you can “te goinfrer” on “la bouffe” – stuff yourself with grub:
When someone says you are “un goinfre”, they’re calling you a glutton. “J’ai beaucoup mangé” only implies quantity; “je me suis goinfré” implies speed and stuffing.
The meaning of “la bouffe” is “grub”, and as such doesn’t usually designate a five-star meal. But if you go to a Macdo (McDonald’s), you’re not just eating “bouffe”, you’re eating “mal-bouffe”, a term that was coined by the francophone media to designate fast food and just plain unhealthy food.
Of course, it’s not just food. France is well-known for its wine, and it’s easy to get too much of it. In colloquial French, you would be “bourré” (drunk), ou you could say that someone “se pique du nez”. You could also “être pêté”, “être pompette”, “être beurré comme un petit LU”, “être gris”, “être noir”… There are almost as many words in French idiom for being drunk as there are French wines.
If there’s one thing slang words are good for, it’s expressing frustration – and joy. There are a myriad of slang adjectives and adverbs for these cases – often, you can’t translate them directly, but you’ll generally know what they mean.
If you hear a French person say “ça fait chier”, you know they’re having one of those days. You should “faire gaffe”, be careful. “Ça fait chier” basically means “it’s annoying” – but with venom. You can also say “c’est chiant”, that phrase has the same meaning.
Vas-t’en, tu me fais chier! Go away, you’re bugging me.
C’est chiant d’avoir à aller à l’école. It’s annoying to have to go to school.
A bit stronger but with about the same meaning is “avoir le seum” – another of several French sayings that come from Arabic. It means to be annoyed or disgusted.
If you’ve had just about enough of anything and are really angry, you can say “J’en ai marre!” In standard English, you would say: “I’ve had enough!”
American slang had some good expressions for liking things in the past – things rocked, were totally rad, sweet, awesome or just peachy. French slang also has words that express approval or appreciation:
Plutôt que de s’emmerder, je préfère jaser avec mes copines. Pas comme toi et les autres gamins scotchés à la télé.
Rather than being bored, I’d rather chat with my friends. Not like you and the other kids glued to the telly.
It’s not just the “gamins” and the “mômes” that can be “scotchés devant la télé.” It affects cats, too. Photo credit: Alan_D on Visual hunt
Why the vulgar interjection “merde” (shit, crap) became the verb for being bored is unclear, but it does describe the feeling masterfully. The English language simply has no equivalent. And French kids are not glued to the telly, they’re taped to it – the expression “être scotché” comes from “le scotch” – Scotch tape. And yes, French has its own word for Scotch tape (”ruban adhésif”), but this is one of those pesky English words to have made it into the French language – next to “week-end”, “jogging” and “chewing-gum”.
By the way, “jaser”, “to chat” is derived from the caw of a crow or magpie…
If you want to learn French jargon, you can’t escape “verlan”, the French version of “Pig Latin”. In verlan, words are reversed: the last syllable becomes the first; the first syllable becomes the last. During the inversion, the final E vowel of a word becomes a “eu”; verlan words usually begin with a consonant.
The word “verlan” is itself a word in verlan – it is the French word “(à) l’envers” (”in reverse”) in reverse: l’envers -> versl’en -> verlan.
Unlike pig latin, though, these words in verlan are frequently used in day-to-day speech:
Even shopkeepers speak verlan slang: this French hatter calls himself “pochat” – verlan for “chapeau”, “hat”. Photo credit: marcella bona on Visualhunt
A newer trend is to pass words in verlan through the verlan again: you reverse the syllables once more. An example of such double-reversed word is “feum”, from “meuf” (see above), from “femme”.
Beware the term “reub”. It’s a widely used but offensive term to refer to someone of Arab descent. It’s a double-verlan: the word “arabe” became “beur” (another noun you shouldn’t use) which was re-reversed to “reub”.
As I am sure you’ve found, none of these are in your textbook. And while you can buy a slang dictionary or a thesaurus, there is nothing like spending time among native speakers for free French slang lessons – which have the added benefit of the French accent. As you immerse yourself in the French language, you will discover a great number of words that weren’t covered in your last French lesson. When you get back from your language immersion holiday, in addition to improving your French pronunciation, you can keep up with your colloquial French with a language exchange – teach a Frenchman (or woman) English while they talk to you in their mother tongue.
Merci et à bientôt!
Follow the link to learn about the regional dialects of France.