Boardroom Buzzwords: France’s Most Commonly-Used Jargon (And How to Interpret Them at Work)

France has a long and proud history surrounding its national language, dating back to the centuries when French was the universal language of cultured and educated people across Europe.  Today, French has proved its resilience by developing a dynamic network of idioms and slang terms, some of which have even made it to official French dictionaries.  Even if you’ve mastered your French and its beautiful accent, French slang spans generational gaps and may be confusing to outsiders, so learn what to say, how to say it, and what words you should simply stay away from. Here are a few key colloquialisms that you will definitely encounter on your next trip to France.


1. Le Verlan.  Verlan is a phenomenon, once considered alternative but now widely mainstream, in which syllables of words are reversed; the word verlan itself is a phonetic reversal of the word l’envers, which means “the inverse.”  For example, the word for woman, femme, is reversed to create the verlan word meuf, which can then be re-reversed into the word feumeu.

2. Ça Déchire.  Literally, the verb déchire means to tear something up, but this term is the French equivalent of saying, “That’s cool!” or “That rocks!”  Usage of this term dates back to 90s, so it’s ubiquitous among youths as well as professionals.

Photo by Mauro Cateb

Photo by Mauro Cateb

3. La Balle.  It translates as “bullet,” but in the days before France joined the Eurozone it was used to mean “franc,” much in the same way that the US uses “bucks” to refer to dollars and the UK uses “quid” to refer to pounds sterling.  Now, of course, balle is a substitute for the currency “euro.”

4. Être Vénère.  Another verlan term, to say, “Je suis vénère!” is to state that you’re incredibly angry.  Vénère is the reverse of énervé, which means annoyed or irritated, so if your boss happens to mention that he’s feeling vénère, watch out!

5. Donner sa langue au chat.  Literally, “to give one’s tongue to the cat.”  This is a classic idiom that means to give up, or “throw the towel in.”

6. Arriver comme un cheveu sur la soupe.  Another weird metaphor, this translates as “to come in like a hair in the soup.”  It refers to walking into a situation at the exact worst time, resulting in an awkward standoff that nobody knows how to extricate themselves from.

Photo by Ludovic Péron

Photo by Ludovic Péron

7. Je dis ça, je dis rien.  It literally means, “I say that, I say nothing,” and is an inoffensive way of giving an unwanted opinion, or ameliorating a harsh truth.

8. Ne rien faire de ses dix doigts.  “He doesn’t do anything with his ten fingers.”  Succinctly put, it’s a snarky way of saying someone’s lazy or useless.  The opposite of this would be avoir les dents longues, which translates as “to have long teeth” and refers to someone being very ambitious.

In light of France’s diverse and ever-changing culture, the list of slang and idioms is endless.  Prepare yourself by getting started with French lessons.  Send us an inquiry to begin, or take our free online French language level test.