12 Colloquial French Words to Converse Like a Native Speaker
French, like English, has a rich and thriving colloquial vocabulary that’s constantly evolving.
The French you learned at school isn’t always the colloquial French that people actually speak.
That’s why it’s so important to keep on top of all things French and make sure you’re immersing yourself in the French culture.
- 1. La vache
- 2. Un flic
- 3. Keuf
- 4. Scred
- 5. Déchiré
- 6. Nickel
- 7. Se la péter
- 8. Fais gaffe
- 9. Le taf
- 10. Bouffon
- 11. Zarbi
- 12. Chelou
- Le parler des jeunes
- How to Learn Colloquial French
1. La vache
The saying la vache literally translates to “the cow” in English, but the expression is often used to signify disbelief in something, the same way we use “holy cow!”
La vache ! J’y crois pas ! — Oh my God. I can’t believe it!
Je me suis fait virer aujourd’hui.
— I got fired today.
La vache ! Je suis vraiment désolée pour toi. — No way! I’m so sorry for you.
2. Un flic
This word is slang for a police officer. It’s a popular colloquial term that can often be heard in French detective shows. It’s similar to the verb fliquer which means “to police.”
Attention, il y a les flics là-bas ! — Careful, there are police over there!
J’ai appelé les flics mais ils n’ont rien fait ! — I called the police but they didn’t do anything!
It’s worth noting the verlan term for the argot word flic. In verlan, flic has been turned into keuf. Even argot is being reversed and changed!
Je kiffe pas les keufs. — I don’t like the police.
Scred is the verlan word used to tell someone to be “discreet” or “shorter” and it comes from the French word discret .
Soyez scred ! Quelqu’un arrive ! — Be discreet! Someone’s coming!
Il était très scred hier soir ! — He was really discreet last night!
When you’ve had a bit too much to drink and reached the point of no return, this is the word to sum up being completely wasted. Déchiré refers to that drunken state that no one wants to find themselves in.
Je ne veux pas être déchiré, je travaille demain matin. — I don’t want to get wasted, I’ve got work tomorrow morning.
When something’s great it isn’t just good, it’s nickel!
The slang meaning originates from nickel being a shiny metal and therefore insinuating something’s very clean or brilliant. I know, language evolves in strange ways. It’s now used in colloquial French to refer to something that’s très bien !
Merci beaucoup, c’est nickel ! — Thank you, it’s great!
Tu devrais être barman, tes cocktails sont nickel ! — You should be a barman (bartender), your cocktails are amazing!
7. Se la péter
Okay, so in French péter is the word used for “passing gas” but it can also refer to something breaking or blowing up. It’s always great when one single word can mean three different things, so it’s essential to add to your vocabulary!
A common usage of this phrase today, when used reflexively, is to describe someone who’s a bit full of themselves!
Mais il se prend pour qui ce soir ? Vraiment, il se la pète ! — Who does he think he is tonight? He’s really full of himself!
Arrête de te la péter chaque fois que tu reçois la meilleure note de la classe. — Stop showing off every time you get the best score in class.
8. Fais gaffe
In English the word gaffe refers to mistakes or errors, in colloquial French it’s now common to use the phrase fais gaffe to tell someone to “pay attention!”, “be careful!” or “watch out!”
Fais gaffe avant de traverser la rue ! — Be careful before crossing the road!
9. Le taf
Le taf basically translates to travail à faire (work to do). Le taf may be slang but it has broken into every Frenchie’s colloquial vocabulary. All in all, it’s a very valuable word to have under your belt. (Note: the word can be spelled in various ways—including: taf, taff, and taffe—but it’s always masculine).
J’ai trop de taf ! — I’ve got loads of work!
Est-ce que t’as besoin de taf ? — Do you need some work?
Just like the word “buffoon” in English, this denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person. However, it has more of an edge in colloquial French and young people use it to refer to someone who’s a loser.
C’est vraiment un bouffon. — He’s such a loser.
A fairly common word thanks to verlan is zarbi, which is an inversion of the word bizarre . The b has been placed at the end of the word, giving it a less complex sound and making it the perfect way for young people to refer to something strange. Obviously, like bizarre, zarbi means that something’s weird.
J’ai trouvé que c’était trop zarbi ! — I found it too weird!
Another verlan word for you. Chelou is taken from the word louche which signifies that something or someone is shady, sleazy or strange.
Elle est un peu chelou, non ? — She’s a little shady, no?
Fais gaffe, c’est un mec chelou ! — Careful, that guy is strange!
Le parler des jeunes
Generally speaking, every language has the youth to thank for the evolving and colloquial language of their dearly beloved mother tongue. Sure, not all of these changes are welcome. But soon enough, we have to embrace the changes, especially as they become commonplace.
Remember when people first started using “LOL”? I remember swearing I would never use it, let alone let myself fall into the trap of “lolling” without even laughing. But, nowadays, who doesn’t use “LOL” and the multitude of other abbreviations and colorful phrases that make communicating easier and more fun?
If it wasn’t for the evolution of language and shortcuts to make things simple, we wouldn’t have all of the expressions that we’re accustomed to using. We’d all probably still be exchanging sonnets and speaking Shakespearean English.
The same goes for French.
Nowadays, le parler des jeunes (youth talk) is seen through text messaging, social networking and blogs. They borrow words from English and adopt them into the language (e.g. liker and checker along with various other words that have been used for decades in French including cool and week-end ). They drop vowels from words to save time (e.g. qqn for quelqu’un ) and they actively use argot and make up new words to express certain things (e.g. verlan).
Verlan is a type of French slang that features the mixing of syllables in a word. The word verlan itself is an example of verlan, as it’s taken from the word l’envers (the reverse).
Let’s take l’en + vers then switch them around. This turns out to equal vers + l’en. Just add them together and we have verslen . Make a few final touches, such as dropping the s and adding an a instead of leaving the e (for a more natural French pronunciation) and voilà, we have verlan .
Another example of verlan is the word ouf , a popular verlan term that has even made its way into common everyday French. The word comes from fou (crazy). All they did with this was pronounce it backward, dropping the f from the front of the word and adding it to the end of the word. That’s how fou became ouf.
So where on Earth did verlan originate from?
It was originally invented as a way for people to communicate freely without fear of being overheard by figures of authority, so it’s no wonder that French learners have difficulty with this one.
Nowadays, verlan is commonly used in casual conversation and heard in French hip-hop in certain banlieues (the suburbs of a large city). FYI (look, a useful abbreviation!): Belgian artist Stromae is actually verlan for “maestro.” Cool, huh?
How to Learn Colloquial French
Want to learn more colloquial French terms? Here are some fun ideas to get you started:
- Use books to study French idioms and expressions. One way to learn colloquial French is by integrating idioms and common French expressions into your study routine. There are plenty of books full of colloquial French idioms and expressions, like “The Complete French Expressions & Idioms Course” by Dylane Moreau.
- Listen to native content. Immersing yourself in native content like French music or videos on YouTube will help you hear colloquial French words and phrases in context. You could also use a language learning program like FluentU, which lets you watch authentic French videos with interactive captions. These captions use a contextual dictionary, so even when you come across verlan, you’ll still find an accurate definition.
- Use social media. Social media can be a great resource for learning colloquial words. Simply find French language accounts that interest you and read through the comments. Not only will you be able to see colloquial French in action, but you’ll also get to learn some of the most common slang words, too.
I hope this list inspires you to seek out new vocabulary and be on the lookout for even more French argot and verlan as you progress with your French.
Once you get started, you’ll become addicted to replenishing your vocabulary with a whole range of new words and expressions.
At that point, you’ll be sounding undeniably like a native!
And if Canadian French is more your thing, check out this post on essential Québécois slang!