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From the introduction

Five minutes after arriving in Paris, if you are not a complete lavedu (see the body of the book for definitions of bold-faced words), cave, or tebé, you will have discovered that the language instruction offered back in college is by and large inadequate for the most basic needs—sex, food, and finance—of everyday French living. Though college language departments have progressed from dealing exclusively with the elevated world of Molière, Racine, and Corneille to examining the concepts at the heart of Gide, Proust, Céline, Sartre, and Camus (and focusing somewhat more gingerly on the world of Genet), classical pudeur and retenue are still the rule in academe even if no longer in France.

Unsurprisingly, this stance adopted by those charged with conveying French language and culture not only prevents us from getting near the smoky essence of the French and their language, but is basically antithetical to the genius of a culture traditionally known for calling a spade a spade after carefully defining just what a spade is. The fact is that the average Gaulois has a reputation for not caring what one does as long as the activity can be paid for and pronounced correctly, which is one reason the very word “French”—as in “French postcard,” “French leave,” “to French it,” and “pardon my French” (that somewhat quaint and dated apology for verbal indelicacy)—has in many Americans traditionally stirred an anticipatory shudder of sin not unmixed with a dollop of delight. Mark Twain was conspicuous in his use of the word “French” as a euphemism for immorality.

Lexicographers of slang occasionally differ in their definitions and spellings of words and phrases. Pierre Merle, in his introduction to a recent reprint of L’argot au xx-ième siècle by Aristide Bruant—he of the flaming red scarf in the famous Lautrec poster—has noted that a word may have not a single translation but “five, six, ten, sometimes even a hundred,” and that these may vary from quartier to quartier or even from rue to rue. For example, les français in Passy share the French language only tangentially with les céfrans who inhabit what in 1992 the Minister of Education gingerly classified as les zones sensibles—disadvantaged neighborhoods whose students have special educational needs. In addition, it should always be remembered that context is everything. (Conventional meanings of words are given in parentheses.)

Take, for example, the word pied. It may simply mean “foot” as an anatomical designation or a unit of measurement. Nothing very exciting in that. Earlier in the century, however, it began to take on the meaning of a “share in the loot,” and from there it was only a hop, sip, and hump before prendre son pied went from meaning “getting one’s share” to “having an orgasm” and by extension to “having a great time.” At present, c’est le pied is generally no more than an expression of satisfaction concerning just about anything—a movie, a meal, etc. Again, in the time of François Villon patibulaire was a masculine noun meaning “the gibbet,” but today it is an adjective meaning “hangdog”—in other words an expression assumed when faced with the gibbet, an experience that the “poet of the gallows” was familiar with. Similarly, the expression “ok” adopted from the American has come to mean in present-day France “enough already.”

In addition, words or expressions pass from their limited use as slang or language used only in an intimate context to being perfectly acceptable in everyday French. For example, the verb cambrioler, “to burgle,” evolved over the years from the Provençal noun cambre, “chamber” or “room,” to the slang word cambriolage, meaning “burglary”; but at the turn of the century this now-conventional word was not familiar even to so hip a singer and poet as Bruant. Similarly, Merle points out that le jars, which currently means “slang,” once meant “mysterious vocabulary,” and Bruant gives it a variety of spellings such as ger, gier, jar, etc., and includes it under the special jargon or gergon of les loucherbems—butchers—out to mystify their customers.

The entries in the following pages were chosen because whether old or new they are still current and still considered slang. (Following the Emersonian dictum that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” I have nevertheless sometimes included a word or phrase because it particularly appealed to me even though it is obsolete or has fallen from grace. Readers are invited to insert favorites of their own.)


N.B. Some current slang verbs often omit the final “r”—see oide, chidave, pachave, géman, etc.

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