Every language has words, expressions and concepts 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 Sundays 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 typical Frenchman dashes off for an 8 p.m. dinner with his 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!”)
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. »)