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 or out in the bainlieue, 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 courses teacher never taught you.

This is not a complete guide to argot or street slang, which seems to invent new words hourly. Instead, we'll focus on informal French phrases and slang words that you might encounter every day.

Slip them into your everyday conversations and watch your French friends marvel at your command of the language!

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French Slang Words for People

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.

Man and woman: know the difference

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.

You can also use "meuf" in place of femme if you're talking to or about your friends. Meuf is an inversion of the word femme and comes from verlan, which we'll explain later). On the other hand, don't use meuf in front of your boss - unless you have a particularly relaxed and cool workplace!

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"Nana" means "woman" in argot.
In idiomatic French, a "nana" is not just 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:

  • “des gamins”
  • “des mioches”
  • “des gosses”
  • “des mômes”.

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.”

To refer to teenagers, you can use the word “ados”, a shortened form of “un adolescent”.

Slang Words for Important Body Parts

When making up your vocabulary flashcards, don’t forget the slang word for mouth: “gueule”.

This is used in the French equivalent for "shut up" which is “ta gueule!”. As you might already have picked up front content, gueule is generally quite informal and can be rude. In the non-slang sense it is used to refer to an animal's mouth (in English, we might translate this to "maw" or "jaws").

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 (if you're curious - there are many different ways to say hand, including “pattes” or “patoches”).

Slang Words referring to jobs (and those who do them)

Ever been pulled over by the flics on your way to the toubib?

A “flic” is a cop, a police officer. It has been in use 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.

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"Maire" is the French word for mayor. "Mère" is mother.
"Niquer" is another French oath that originates from Arabic. But just because you speak argot doesn't mean you can spell. This graffiti artist, 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.com
While we’re talking of professions, don’t forget “d’aller au boulot” (go to work) every day at your “boîte” (company).

The word for the oldest profession on earth is "putain" (literally: whore or slut). This can also be shortened to "pute". The French are generally much more liberal with using these words than we would be in English - although, again, choose your context wisely as you would when dropping the f-bomb. Just like with the f--- word, you can use "putain" as an exclamation for both positive and negative situations. 

"Putain! C'est horrible!" - F---, that's horrible!

"Putain mais on a gagne!" - F--- me, we won!

For small inconveniences taking place in polite company (let's say you've spilt your coffee or stubbed your toe), better to use "mince". This is what the French say to avoid calling out "merde" (s--t) - an equivalent in English might be saying "sugar" or "sssshhoot!".

In these kinds of situations, you can equally use "mince alors".

An older version of "mince" that you may know from your French textbooks, but is hardly ever used in modern France is "Zut!" or "Zut alors!". Be warned - you'll definitely sound like a grandma if you use this one in front of your French friends!

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French slang words for describing people

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!

And while we're on the subject, the verb flipper means to "freak out".

Just hope that the nice mec you've met isn't a “con”. “Con” is an insult that politely translates as “stupid idiot”. If you make a silly mistake, you can say "Je suis con!". A stronger version of con is connard, which might translate more accurately to "wanker" or "asshole".

Whilst feminine versions of the term do exist - con becomes conne and connard becomes connasse in the feminine - these have an added layer of sexism to them, and are therefore very rarely used. To say "Oh, I'm so silly", a woman will use the masculine form "Ah, je suis con.", even if this doesn't necessarily agree with her gender.

Some French Slang for Food

When you think of French culture, it's only natural to think of food. 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’ai 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.

Now, if someone is pouring your wine but you've already had quite enough, you can indicate how much you'd like by asking for "Juste un doigt" or "Deux doigts" ("Just one finger" or "two fingers").

French Slang Terms for Emotional States

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.

Some French phrases for negative states

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!”

If you're being harassed on the street and you want to tell your harasser to go away in no uncertain terms, the phrase "Vas te faire foutre!" could come in handy. On the other hand, it's pretty strong - equivalent to "F--- off! or "F--- you!", so if you're concerned about escalating the situation, don't use this inflammatory phrase.

Positive French Expressions

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:

  • C’est super! It’s one of those words that can also be used as an adverb: c’est super beau!
  • C'est top! It's great.
  • C’est nickel! It’s impeccable, perfect. (Literally, it’s shiny - like the metal nickel). You can also use "nickel chrome"
  • Kiffer: to appreciate, love - referring to either people or objects, depending on the context. For when “j’aime” just can’t quite express it. "Je kiffe les roses, c’est ma fleur préférée!" I love roses, they’re my favourite flower.

Terms of Endearment

  • "Ma puce" - literally "my little beach flea", it can be used anywhere you might like to say honey or darling
  • Mes potes - these are your mates!
  • Mon / ma cœur - literally, my heart. Again, you can use this in place of "sweetheart".
  • Mon chou - yes, this one literally means "my cabbage" and is generally used when talking to a child with whom you are close - like a son, daughter or beloved niece or nephew. For girls, you can use ma choupette. The English equivalent might be something like calling a small child "pumpkin".
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Learn How To Say Common Words Expressing Interest (Or Lack of It)

Plutôt que de s’emmerder, je préfère jaser avec mes copines. Pas comme toi et les autres gamins scotchés à la télé.
Instead of being bored, I’d rather chat with my friends. Not like you and the other kids glued to the telly.

Le chat est scotché devant la télé.
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…

Verlan: French Pig Latin - an Unusual French Slang

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:

  • Cheum (inverted from “moche”) ugly. La maison là est trop cheum! That house there is so ugly!
  • Ouf (from “fou”). Il traverse la rue sans regarder - il est complètement ouf! He doesn’t look both ways before crossing - he’s completely bonkers! Note that simply being eccentric doesn’t make you “ouf” - the term is very derogatory.
    • You can also use "de ouf" to mean "so much" or "a lot". "Tu kiffes ces nouveaux chassures la?" (Do you like those new shoes?) "Je kiffe de ouf."
  • Une Meuf (femme) - we mentioned this one before up top!
  • Un keum (kem, mec) Quand une meuf et un keum s’aiment, il n’y a rien à faire! When a guy and a girl fall in love, there is nothing you can do!
  • Reuch, (cher, expensive) Mon dieu, cette pomme est reuch! My god, this apple is expensive!
  • Keuf (flic - see above) Attention, les keufs! Look out, the cops!
  • Yeuv - the verlan of "vieux", meaning an old person. "Ce yeuv la il boit toujours son cafe en terrasse." Even though "vieux" is masculine, you can use it for any gender of old person.
"Pochat" is verlan for "chapeau", "hat".
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”.

LGBTQI Terms In French

French, much like English, has had to evolve and keep up with changing and expanding understandings of gender. Unfortunately, French doesn't have a singular, gender-neutral "they" handy, so new pronouns have had to be invented for people outside the gender binary to use. The most common is iel (they, neither he nor she), but you'll also find ielle, ille, ol or æl.

Another French word that is currently slang but slowly making its way into mainstream use is "les adelphes" (the siblings). Traditionally, French has never had a gender-neutral word like siblings - this used to be translated clumsily as fraternité. Adelphes has only existed for the past couple of years, and even now is really only commonly used in queer circles. It can be used for blood siblings and beyond, and is commonly used for your close potes (mates), who you might see as family.

Adelphes has an interesting history - it has been adapted into French from the ancient Greek ἀδελφύς (adelphós), meaning blood siblings from the same uterus.

In Conclusion...

You won't find many of these terms in your French textbook! Curious Francophiles can buy a slang dictionary or a thesaurus, but 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!

Hungry for more French? Follow the link to learn about the regional dialects of France.

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Erin

Erin is an Australian musician, writer and francophile living in France.