6 Unique French Words and Expressions

Un article "vachement" bien! (I hope!)

L’article “vachement” bien! (I hope!)

Every language has words, expressions and concept that are untranslatable or that reveal a lot about the country’s culture.

French is often seen as a grammatically complex language and I certainly sympathize with anyone who is struggling with all these tenses and seemingly arbitrary rules governing the use of le bon français.

But French is also a colourful and flexible language. The proper use of subjunctive? Yeah, boring. French slang? Now, that’s interesting.

Whether you are looking to expand your vocabulary or get some insight into the French psyche, here are six unique words and expressions for you to use… or not.


Glauque is an uninspiring colour, blueish-green, but it’s almost never used to describe this particular shade. In French, glauque also means “murky” (when talking about water), “shady”, “seedy” or “creepy”. For example, a soirée (“party”) can be glauque if no one shows up and the DJ plays depressing tunes, unsolved murders are often des affaires glauques (“creepy cases”), and a type (“guy”) can be glauque if he stares at your boobs with a salacious smile in the subway. Glauque has to be pronounced with a sigh and just enough disgust in your tone of voice to convey its meaning.

Example: “Les dimanches sous la pluie, c’est d’un glauque…” (“Rainy Sunday are sordid.”)

5 à 7

This nice synecdoche means “having an affair” and refers to a visit to one’s mistress, usually made late enough in the day that leaving work won’t look suspicious, but earlier than the normal end-of-business day, i.e. 7 p.m. in France. Then, your typically Frenchman dashes off for a 8 p.m. dinner with the wife, who is also probably having an affair. I always keep an eye on Feng between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., but since this is usually the time when we pick up Mark at daycare and entertain him, chances to find extramarital encounters are slim. Ouf.

Example: “Marre de ces 5 à 7! Je vais tout dire à ta femme. ” (“I’m sick of this affair. I’m going to tell your wife about us.”)


Vachement literally means “cowly”, but French use this word as a superlative meaning “really” or “bloody”. Some may say it’s dated and that these days, people tend to use “trop”, but I still like vachement. Note that vachement is often paired with putain (“fucking”) for maximum effect.

Example: “Putain, l’avion est vachement en retard!” (“Fuck, the plane is really late!”)

Salle d’eau

A salle d’eau refers to a room generally containing at minimum a sink, a bathtub or a shower, and possibly also a bidet, In France, it doesn’t contain a lavatory, the toilet is in a separate room. Why did I pick this expression? Because I love how literal it is—une salle d’eau, a water room, where you, know you, use water. I find words that state the obvious funny. Other examples are crayon à papier (literally “paper pen” for “pencil”) or crayon de bois (“wood pencil” for “pencil”).

Example: “Je vais me laver les mains dans la salle d’eau.” (“I’m going to wash my hand in the bathroom.”)


Verlan is a kind of backward slang that isn’t that popular anymore, but a few words have become so commonplace that they are in the dictionary. Verlan actually means “envers” (backward) and that’s exactly how it works, you inverse the order of syllables in a word. For example, pourri (“rotten”) becomes ripou (still a common enough nickname for cops), choper (“to catch”) becomes pécho, lourd (“annoying”) becomes relou, and beur (from arabe) is now widely used to describe a second-generation North African in France.

Example: “Laisse béton, là, t’es relou…” (“Drop it, you’re being a pain in the ass.”)


Originally, gueule is the mouth of an animal, or the muzzle, like la gueule du lion. But it’s also a great slang word that describes the human face and is used in many expressions. For example, c’est bien fait pour leur gueule (“serves them right”), faire la gueule (“sulking”), avoir la gueule de l’emploi (“looking the part”), ta gueule! (“shut your mouth!”), coup de gueule (“outburst of anger”), gueuler (“to shout or to complain”), s’engueuler (“to argue”), avoir de la gueule (“looking terrific”), se bourrer la gueule (“to get drunk”), avoir la gueule de bois (“to have a hangover”)… and many more. Seriously.

Example: Il fait la gueule parce que j’ai fini les chocos. (“He is sulking because I ate the last Choco biscuits.”)


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I guenuinely had no idea that “glauque” was a color!!!
    5 à 7 is an expression I had never heard before moving to Québec. And back to France, I never hear it anymore!
    Same goes for salle d’eau. It might be a “régionalisme”, no? It’s not very used in the south east!
    Putain, cet article vachement est bien !

    • I think “salle d’eau” is a regionalism indeed, a few French picked at me for using this expression. But it does exist (outside of my family!), I checked! Same for glauque, I think I looked it up once to translate it properly and I learned it was a colour.

  2. Love your post!
    Though I would add that if you are invited to a “5 à 7” by your québécois colleges don’t run the other way saying it’s glauque. In Quebec a 5 à 7 means l’heure de l’apéro and most of the bars and restaurants have 5 à 7 specials.
    Or I had been mislead for the last 8-ish years….Hmmm….
    Ad relou is a part of my daily vocabulary. But I have real trouble explaining it to people.

      • I was going to say the same thing. In Québec, “5 à 7” is the “happy hour” in bars, no pun intended! 🙂
        When I arrived in Montréal as a teenager (many, many years ago) “vachement” used to be the favorite word that my Québécois friends used to pick on and laugh. Nice memories. “Oh la vache!”, apparently I said it a lot…

        • “La vache”… I forgot about that one, I don’t use it as much I guess. Would there is an equivalent in Argentinean Spanish? You guys should have a “vachement” something considering the number of “vacas” over there 😆

  3. I have seen vachement so much but never actually understood its meaning until now! I love French, I love speaking it and I love reading it. I am so passionate about the language – wish I could practice it more, I really want to continue my study of it!

  4. When I was in University, a lot of people dreaded learning French and only took it because it was requried for their BA degree. It wasn’t required for my degree but I took it as an elective because I lked the language. It also taught me a lot about the structure of English that I had taken for granted. I found that the verbs that formed the passé composé with être looked strange. For example, Je suis né le 15 Janvier, looked like I was saying that I am born instead of I was born. Do French people learning English find this confusing and use the wrong auxillary verb?

    People in Ottawa can’t have affairs because they don’t have sex according to this BBC article about Ashley Madison.


    • Re. the article… oh, this explains so much! 😆

      I found tenses very very confusing in English when I first learned it, especially when to use the verb+-ing. Like “I play ball” vs. “I’m playing ball”. And structures that are different in French, for instance “je suis d’accord” vs. “I do agree” (instead of “I am agree” as a French speaker may say out of habit!)

  5. I think that learning another language is like travelling, it broadens your horizons. It also gives you a lot more movies to watch. I am currently streaming Les Revenants in French and The Returned in English. The characters and the story are the same, only one is set in France and the other in the U,S. Even though the scripts are the same, it is interesting to see the cultural differences, The people, the houses, the clothes and the stores are so different and yet the same.

    I noticed that a lot of Métis in Saskatchewan use verbs in English as if they are relfexive, For example, they will say “I get up me”. I think that this comes from their French background where they would say “je me lève” except they extend it to every verb and will say ” I am going home me.”

    • I have just Googled Les revenants and it looks really cool! Would you recommend me to watch it?

      I agree, learning another language (and thinking in another language) is an asset to understand the world, how people think, relate to one another. I listened to a talk recently where the case was made that people who speak a language without conjugations or tenses (like Chinese) tend to see the world differently, they don’t think of “the future” as this vague stuff looming upon us but think in terms of milestones, like “when I (get married/have kids/get promoted, etc.) and take practical steps to reach them. I found the concept fascinating.

      • Désolé de m’immiscer dans la conversation, mais tu peux regarder les Revenants sans problème. Excellente série, très bien réalisée pour une série française. La saison 2 va sortir cet automne sur canal+… soit trois ans après la saison 1 !
        Dans un style très différent, mais dans les très bonnes séries françaises, tu connais peut-être Braquo ? Du policier très sombre et hyper réaliste.
        Et, un cran en dessous (je trouve), mais sympa quand même, car bilingue français-anglais, il y a la série Tunnel, dont l’histoire se retrouve en partie à travers le célèbre film canadien Bon Cop Bad Cop, mais traité vraiment différemment, plus sombre et plus noir.
        Enfin, il parait que “le bureau des légendes” est pas mal. Sortie au printemps dernier, c’est un espèce de Homeland à la française, mais j’ai pas encore eu le temps de le regarder. Voila, c’est tout pour la parenthèse 🙂

        • Un gros merci pour ces recommandations! Je cherchais justement des séries à regarder et je crois que celles que tu me proposes pourraient me plaire. Je suis vraiment déconnectée des médias français, même après 1 mois et demi en France.

          Tu n’aurais pas des auteurs français à recommander aussi, des trucs récents? 😉

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