French curse words are an essential part of the French language. They allow speakers to express emotions from frustration to rage. In fact, if you go to southern France, you’ll hear French swear words like they’re going out of style.
I took high school French, and I remember very clearly the day that a student asked Madame Cowles to teach us a few French swear words. Mon Dieu !
But instead of scolding my snickering classmate, our teacher began writing a few words on the board. Now this was an education that I could get behind!
Of course, the French swears that we learned that day lacked context. They were just words. I had no idea then a) how often French people actually swear and b) what sort of impact each particular gros mot has on the listener.
Two years of living in France, however, changed all that. It seemed like everyone around me was cursing—a casual merde from the lips of my host sister Audrey, a disgusted salaud from my neighbor Catherine, an abrasive enculé from my French roommate Thomas.
I wish I had owned an audio recorder when I lived in Paris. I feel like I could have hit “record” at any time during the day and I would have picked up a hodgepodge of French swear words.
So what are they? Well, a perfect list of French curse words would be hard to create, because when it comes to profanity, everyone draws the line at a different spot.
For example, zut isn’t really a swear word in French, even though you can find it on lists of French swear words and you can say it in annoyance or disappointment. It’s the equivalent of “darn” and sits meekly at the tame end of the Spectrum of French Curse Words.
Below are words that French people actually use; I’ve also given the situations in which they use them.
Use the links below to jump right to your swear word of choice, find out how to pronounce each word or phrase, and then listen to a string of French swears.
A List of French Curse Words for the Discerning Swearer
- fils de pute
- [ça me] fait chier
- salaud / salope
- [ferme] ta gueule
- More French swears
If you go to France, then I’ll bet you 10 euros that you hear merde (“shit”) from someone in the first 24 hours.
It might be a French guy sitting in the row behind you on the métro. Or maybe the pedestrian pointing at all the merde that the dogs leave on the sidewalk (and that very few dog owners pick up). It could even be a shopkeeper talking to an employee under her breath before she knows you’re there.
The word merde is both a noun and an exclamation, and it’s used almost twice as much in French writing as putain, which is no. 2 by frequency in the corpus of French swear words. (The same is true for English, by the way: “shit” is about twice as common in writing as “fuck.”)
The French exclaim merde in so many different situations. Here are a few:
- “I stubbed my toe.”
- “The other team just scored a goal.”
- “I’m really sorry to hear that your dad has cancer.” (With this last one, the speaker would say it quietly, with empathy, and really draw it out, sometimes turning it into a two-syllable word: MAIR-duh.)
In fact, in some situations, merde comes out so easily (and no one bats an eye) that it almost comes across as “damn.” And although merde means “shit,” its verb form, emmerder, doesn’t mean “to shit.”
If you need a stronger word than merde, then you can always use putain (“fuck”). The word was originally an offensive term for “prostitute”—i.e., “whore.”
Today, though, we hear it mostly as an exclamation: Putain, c’est cher ! (“Fuck, that’s expensive!”)
One classic swearing formula that you’ll hear in French is putain + de + [noun], which translates as “fucking [noun].” Now let’s fill in the blank!
- Putain de merde ! (“Fucking shit!”)
- Ce putain d’embouteillage ! (“This fucking traffic jam!”)
- Putain de temps ! (“Fucking weather!”)
- Ce putain d’ordinateur ! (“This fucking computer!”)
fils de pute
Fils de pute is incredibly vulgar, if a bit dated, and sits at the other end of the spectrum (probably scowling, spitting, and grabbing its crotch). It means “son of a bitch,” but you hear it much less in French than “son of a bitch” in English. In fact, in terms of harshness, it’s closer to “motherfucker.”
For a start, pute means “whore,” so already it’s a nastier insult than its English cousin. In addition, the French don’t usually use fils de pute as an exclamation of disgust or annoyance, which is one way that English speakers often use “son of a bitch.”
Instead, they reserve it for people—that is, you might call someone a fils de pute, but you wouldn’t scream it if you dropped an anvil on your foot.
Again, though, just because you can call someone a fils de pute doesn’t mean that you should. My French friends warned me against trotting this one out casually—it’s extremely insulting.
Foutre is interesting. It’s a verb that comes in a few different flavors. For example, an angry Frenchman might say Va te faire foutre ! (“Go fuck yourself!”). Later, in a calmer moment, he might use an expression with the same word, such as Je m’en fous, which is both tamer and more common.
I always heard French speakers use Je m’en fous in situations where I would say “I don’t care” in English. However, it’s definitely stronger than “I don’t care,” closer to “I don’t give a damn/shit.”
Of all the French curse words out there, I think baiser might be the trickiest for English speakers. Much to their chagrin (delight?), baiser can mean either “kiss” or “fuck,” depending on context.
For example, when Maupassant writes la baisant sur le museau, he’s talking about a dog being kissed on its muzzle. But a drunken, lecherous 20-something mumbling J’ai envie de baiser to a woman he’s trying to pick up in a bar may be on the receiving end of a well-deserved slap to the face.
[ça me] fait chier
Literally “That makes me shit,” this expression always made me laugh. French speakers often shorten the entire phrase Ça me fait chier ! to simply Fait chier ! But I don’t begrudge them this economy of words. I mean, if you have to shit, you don’t have time to say extra words…
So what does it mean? It’s an expression of annoyance, akin to “What a pain in the ass!” or “This sucks!”
This swear is often paired with putain and merde to create the colorful Putain merde fait chier ! Note: I’ve never heard this used ironically or for a laugh. If you hear this, then you know the speaker is upset.
Is “bordello” a bad word? No, but it’s helpful to think of how “whorehouse” sounds to your English ears. (Nastier than “bordello,” huh?)
So why am I including bordel in a post about French curse words? Because the French use it when they’re angry or disgusted. In addition, bordel figures in a few key French swears.
- C’est le bordel ici ! (“What a goddamn mess!” / “What a shithole this is!”)
- Bordel de merde ! (“Goddammit!”) Interestingly, you can’t find Dieu (“God”) anywhere in this phrase, but most French swear words don’t have a perfect one-to-one correspondence that always holds true. Keep that in mind as you consider the following:
- Putain de bordel de merde ! Even though I wrote earlier that putain de translates as “fucking,” you can’t say “fucking goddammit” in English, and you can’t use the word-for-word “Fucking whorehouse of shit!” (Well, you can, but you’ll get a lot of funny looks.) Instead, think of this as something like “Holy fucking shit!” or “Jesus fucking Christ!” (Funny, I always thought Jesus’s middle name was H.)
salaud / salope
Is there a bastard, asshole, or son of a bitch in your life? Then you may have a salaud on your hands! Just like the English equivalents, the French word salaud is reserved for men. (In fact, have you ever heard a woman get called an asshole? I guess we men have a corner on the asshole market…)
Salope is one of those French curse words that is harsher than its for-men-only counterpart. I say this because there’s a sexual connotation to this one. Sure, you might mean “bitch” when you say salope, but “whore” and “slut” are also possible meanings. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Okay, this one ought to have a star next to it, because it’s vulgar—very vulgar. But then again, so is the phrase “to fuck [someone] in the ass,” which is what enculer means.
Did another driver just cut you off in traffic? Enculé ! Did you just find out that your boyfriend cheated on you? Quel enculé !
I find this usage interesting because I can’t imagine an English speaker ever yelling “You buttfucked person / buttfuckee” at the top of his lungs…
The best real-life example I can share involving enculé is the time that I was on le périphérique, the highway that encircles Paris, with my French friend Thomas (pronounced toh-MAH).
It was a parking lot—nobody was moving and Thomas was doing his level best to keep the road rage under wraps. But I could tell that he was getting more and more frustrated.
Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and yelled out, Allez ! On prends le train ou on s’encule !?!, which made me laugh out loud.
But you’d be hysterical, too, if your driver screamed, “C’mon! Are we going to take the train or stand around buttfucking each other?” (Thomas, you have no idea how much mileage I’ve gotten out of this story over the years…)
[ferme] ta gueule
Of all the French curse words that you can direct at another person, this one doesn’t seem that bad on its face. But when you consider that gueule is an animal’s mouth (or “muzzle” or “maw”), you can understand why it’s insulting.
It’s also short for Ferme ta gueule, an extremely rude way of telling someone to shut up. Again, we can’t translate it word for word, because “Shut your mouth-of-an-animal!” just sounds ridiculous. Instead, it’s somewhere in between “Shut up!” and “Shut your fuckin’ mouth!”
Aren’t There More French Curse Words?
Mais oui ! If I had included too many more, though, this post would have ballooned to book-length.
But lest you leave disappointed, here are a few more French swear words for your repertoire:
con / conne
Of all French curse words, con might have the greatest range. At the tame end, it’s used to signal disappointment or regret: C’est con que tu peux pas venir ! (“It’s too bad that you can’t come!”)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s a crude (if outmoded) term for “vagina.” Think “pussy,” “twat,” or even “cunt.” (That last one may shock Americans, but it’s not uncommon in British usage.)
But when you call someone a con, you’re commenting on their intelligence—for example, a French driver who’s annoyed at the bone-headed move of another motorist might yell, Quel con, celui-là ! It’s akin to “What a fuckin’ idiot!” or “What the hell is he doing?!?”
Con can be a playful term, though, too. Has your friend just told a dad joke? T’es vraiment con, quand même would fit nicely.
Annoyed at yourself? Then try Quel con (if you’re a man) or Quel conne (if you’re a woman), which is like saying, “I’m so frickin’ stupid !”
connard / connasse
Closer to the vulgar end of the spectrum than con and conne, connard and connasse are words that pack a punch. They’re dishes of resentment and negative judgment, perhaps served with a side of jealousy.
For example, high school students might badmouth their teacher (the one who everyone hates) by calling him a connard.
In addition, a recently dumped teenage girl might see her ex with a new girlfriend and, seething with jealous rage, call her a connasse (think “slut” or “whore”).
This is a harsher version of a “jerk,” closer to “asshole.”
Emmerder is a verb that comes from merde, but it doesn’t mean literally “to shit.” Instead, it means “to bore,” “to bug,” or “to piss off,” depending on context.
- Je m’emmerde ! (“I’m so fuckin’ bored.” / “I’m bored shitless.”)
- Tu m’emmerdes ! (“You’re really pissing me off!”)
- T’es vraiment emmerdant, toi ! (“You’re a real pain in the ass!”)
The term pétasse is sexual, an insult akin to “skank” (American) or “tart” (British). In addition, it’s interchangeable with connasse. (Isn’t is great to have options in life?)
trou du cul
We’ve already seen a few “asshole” equivalents among French curse words, but this is the real deal. That is, it literally means “asshole” but, like in English, it can apply to people: C’est vraiment un trou de cul, celui-là ! (“That guy’s a real asshole!”)
If you’re running short on time while you’re insulting someone, you can shorten this one to trou duc’.
A lexical spinoff of couille (“ball,” as in “testicle”), couillon is a funny one, but I don’t mean in the middle-school-boy “balls are funny” kind of way. I mean funny-interesting.
In the north of France, people may say couillon, but it’s vulgar, something like “asshole” in the U.S. or “wanker” in the UK.
However, in the south of France, where swearing is as natural as breathing, a man might say it casually—affectionately, even—to a friend or acquaintance.
You might hear it from guys playing a game of pétanque: Hé, couillon, c’est à toi !
Imagine calling up your buddy and saying, “Hey, douchebag, wanna grab a beer later?” That’s couillon.
Thanks to Anna Mason for her help reviewing this post.
Dictionnaire de l’argot français et de ses origines. Colin, Jean-Paul, and Jean-Pierre Mével. Larousse. 1990.
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