La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words

Ever wondered why the French curse the way they do? Hattie Ditton tries to get to the bottom of "merde" and a few other swear words.

La Vache! The strange origins of six French curse words
Photo: Upsomeon/Flickr

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

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

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.