It’s no secret that the French love to complain. Given their cultural love of debate and striking, they’re A-list râleurs (complainers). This means that to truly speak French, you must master the art of complaining. Here’s a list of 11 words to use when la vie is not so belle.
1. Mince! // Merde
Straight from the 19th century, mince is safe to use if you drop your fork on the floor while dining with an elderly French aristocrate. Literally meaning “thin,” mince evolved as a way to avoid its vulgar version, merde (shit).
2. C’est nase / naze
Nase or naze comes from the 19th-century word for syphilis, nasi or nazi. Back then, the disease was incurable. Now, the noun’s used in adjective form to mean broken beyond repair or lacking worth. For example, if you ask a friend to bring some good bière artisanale to your apéro and he arrives with a six-pack of Budweiser, you could say of your friend, “c’est nase.” The phrase generally describes situations or people that appear to be poorly-functioning or idiotic.
3. J’en peux plus
This phrase translates to “I can’t take it anymore” and indicates that a situation’s testing your limits. If you’re an au pair and the gamins you’re minding refuse to go to bed — even after you’ve asked ten times — “j’en peux plus!” On the flipside, the expression can also refer to something that’s hilarious. If a friend texts you a hilarious meme, you could reply back with the text-lingo form, “JPP.”
4. C’est relou
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Since this expression’s the verlan (slang) of lourd (heavy), younger French people say this one. It’s commonly used to describe a situation weighing you down or annoying you. If your train to Normandy is delayed two hours, you could grumble, “C’est relou.”
5. C’est la galère // Cette galère
Literally referring to a building used to manufacture oars and sails for the purpose of war or commerce (i.e., a galley), this phrase describes a difficult situation or grueling grunt work. French speakers commonly use it to refer to transportation problems. If you’re stuck in a tunnel on métro line 13 due to traffic interrompu, you could mutter, “C’est la galère.” Likewise, if your friend gave the Uber driver the name of the wrong airport and you miss your flight, you could say, “It’s your fault we’re in cette galère (this mess)!”
6. Fait chier // C’est chiant
Usually muttered under one’s breath at an easily audible volume, this expression means shitty. It’s used to describe highly annoying or inconvenient situations. If the wifi in your apartment goes down or the fan breaks during a canicule, you could say to your French roommate, “Ça fait chier!” Literally: “That creates shit!”
7. Ça me saoule
Though the verb se saouler (sometimes spelled se soûler) means to intoxicate, it can be used to express exasperation. Francophones colloquially use it to describe annoying situations or people. If a French frenemy won’t let you get out a sentence without correcting your grammar, you could tell her, “Tu me saoules!” Likewise, when you’re struggling to remember the genders of nouns in French, “Ça me saoule!”
8. Casser les couilles // Ça casse les couilles
Ready for this one? Casser means “to break” and couilles means “balls.” (Yup, those ones.) The phrase refers to people or situations that are seriously vexing. Despite the masculine imagery, both males and females alike can get their balls busted, women often just add “même si je ne les ai pas” to the end of the phrase. A couple could get into a heated argument and la meuf might shout at le mec, “Arrête de me casser les couilles!”
9. Enculé // Sale pute
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While these extremely vulgar terms might have been in common usage not too long ago, they have definitely fallen into the list of things you should never say (though you might unfortunately still hear them). Enculé, for men or masculine objects, translates to bastard, but its literal translation has recently caused people to shun it as a homophobic slur. In a similarly problematic vein, sale pute, for women or feminine objects, means dirty slut.
10. Bordel de merde
To start, bordel means brothel and merde means shit. Careful because this one’s a definite gros mot (swear word). You’d use it to express general anger and discontent rather than directing it at a particular person or object. If you spilled tomato sauce on an expensive new pair of white jeans, you could yell out this phrase. (Note: On its own, “C’est un bordel” simply describes an area or situation that’s chaotic or messy.)
11. Putain // putain de merde
This one’s near and dear to the hearts — and tongues — of the French. In fact, it’s the most common swear word. Since jurons (swear words) gain force in succession, the phrase is a doozy. Putain means a prostitute or a woman without morals and merde still means shit. French speakers use the phrase as an exclamation of anger but also of joy, fear and surprise (it’s basically the equivalent of the f-word.) You could use it if your new and €€€ vélo gets stolen. If you’re in a professional setting or dining with an aristocrate, you’d better use the G-rated version, punaise.