• France's news in English
La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words
Photo: Upsomeon/Flickr

La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words

The Local · 18 Apr 2016, 15:58

Published: 18 Apr 2016 15:58 GMT+02:00
Updated: 18 Apr 2016 15:58 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Sacré bleu! 

This phrase (actually written "sacrebleu" in French) originally came from the once highly offensive "Sacré Dieu" (Holy God), a phrase many considered to be blasphemous.

Photo: Tallapragada/Flickr

READ ALSO: Sacré bleu - Do the French really say that?

Over time, people changed it to “Sacré bleu”, in order to get away with using the profanity - and it seemed to stick. Nowadays, you'll only hear it ironically or from an elderly family member, in the same way that someone may use ‘golly gosh’. But a word of advice, you're more likely to make someone laugh than offend them by using this phrase - so if you're hoping to sound cool with your French, maybe give this one a miss.


If you've ever heard someone trying to impersonate a Frenchman, you've probably heard "Zut alors" - but you'll rarely hear it from an actual French person. However, you will still hear ‘zut’ being muttered. 

Why we think the French all wear berets and carry onionsZut alors... a phrase for a French imitator. Photo:  Photonquantique/Flickr

It is widely agreed that the phrase has been made up of two elements: One suggestion is that it is from the expression ‘allons, hut’, which from as early as 1791 was used by peasants as a vulgar way of expressing ‘come on, stop!’ The ‘z’ then comes from the liaison of the ‘s’ with beginning of ‘hut’. Another alternative is that it is the fusion of words ‘zest’ and ‘flûte, two terms of exasperation.

Others say it's a toned down euphemism for rather stronger ‘foutre’, meaning ‘fuck’. Either way, the word is hardly vulgar at all and would be the equivalent of ‘damn!’ in English.

Oh la vache!

This is a particularly unusual expression for a non-French speaker. It literally translates to “Oh the cow!” It apparently dates back to the seventeenth century, when farmers would bring cows into towns and villages to ensure the milk they were selling was fresh.

Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

This would be met by exclamations of  “Oh la vache!” by the bourgeois people of the town. Since then, it has wormed its way into everyday conversation, to express shock or horror and is used frequently by French people of all ages.


An old French favourite, ‘merde’ hasn’t always meant what it does today, which most of us know as the equivalent to ‘shit’ in English. In fact, it comes from theatre performances from as far back as the 19th century where the elite would travel by horse and carriage and then leave their horse out the front. 

Spectators would have to walk through the 'merde' to get inside, and the more manure that was traipsed into the theatre meant more ticket buyers (and in turn a better show). The merde became associated with good fortune. 

Photo: debaird/Flickr

It then became commonplace to wish actors luck with this word. Still today, you may hear people wishing each other luck in an exam or performance by saying ‘merde’.


Possibly the most commonly used French expletive, ‘Putain’ comes from ‘put’, meaning dirty, which in turn is derivative of verb ‘puer’ which means ‘to smell bad’. ‘Putain’ translates to “whore” or "prostitute”. Knowing this, it can seem shocking when you first hear it being thrown about in the street (which you will frequently).

An ode to the greatest French swear word everPhoto: David Goehring/Flickr

Story continues below…

READ ALSO: An ode to the greatest French swear word 

However, the meaning that it has taken on nowadays is probably no stronger than English ‘crap’, so don't be too perturbed. In fact, unless you hear someone calling a woman a ‘sale putain’ (dirty whore); then there's no need for concern if you hear the word at all. Otherwise, young and old alike use this word as both a positive or negative exclamation.

Oh là là!

Everyone in the world knows the French phrase Oh là là. But where did it come from? And do people really say it? Yes they do! However, even French people will tell you that it has no real meaning. It seems no one actually knows where it came from but is just one of those things they say.

READ ALSO: Oh la la - how to use the best three words in French

Or if they are really surprised, they'll say ‘oh la la la la la la’. Basically, the more shocking the revelation, or the deeper the admiration, the more ‘la’s will be added. We have taken to using it in English, but with our own, slightly risqué-er connotations. Even songs have been written with this as their title. Pretty impressive for an expression with ‘no meaning’.

By Hattie Ditton

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available