Seven French phrases to help you understand what the cool kids are on about

If you're watching Netflix France's hot new series Family Business, you may have noticed something funny about the language they are using.

Seven French phrases to help you understand what the cool kids are on about
If you want to keep up with Paris bar chat, you may need verlan. Photo: AFP

Set in a lower-income part of Paris, the charming and subversive comedy has been pulling in big audience figures since it was released on the streaming site last week.

But it might prove a touch hard to follow for Anglophones, as the younger characters in it litter their speech with verlan (and quite a few English words too, but that's another story).

Not found in the official dictionary, verlan – France's 'backwards' language – is nevertheless highly popular among the young.

So whether you're a fan of French TV or film, or want to hang out in trendy Paris nightspots chatting to locals, here are some verlan words that you will need to know.


1. Meuf

Like all Verlan words, meuf is formed by inverting another word's syllables. In this case, that word is femme (woman) which is turned into meuf as follows: fe – mme => me – fe => meuf. 
Meuf is the equivalent of saying 'woman', 'girl' or 'bird' in English and is often used to describe a woman who is sexually desirable. 
However it has recently been reclaimed by female teens and young women to describe each other, as a gender specific version of 'mate'. 
For example, you might hear J'ai vu une meuf bizarre dans le bus – I saw a weird chick on the bus.
Or, Kevin est venu à la soirée avec sa meuf. – Kevin came to the party with his girl.
You'll also hear young women addressing friends in the street with Eh, meuf! – Hey, girl!
2. Keum
The male equivalent of meuf is keum. Formed by inverting the casual word mec (a bloke or a guy) it can be used to describe a man, although you would usually use it for younger men, rather than for your boss or your father-in-law. 
So you might hear – J’ai rencontré un keum chaud hier soir – I met a hot guy yesterday evening.
3. Zarbi
The inverted form of bizarre (bi – zarre => zarre – bi => zarbi) this is a good way of describing something that is strange or odd.
For example, you might hear J'ai vu un mec zarbi dans la rue – I saw a weird guy in the street.
Or, Il y avait beaucoup d'objets zarbis au marché aux puces. – There were many strange objects at the flea market.
4. Relou
The word being inverted here is lourd – but not in its literal sense, ‘heavy', but rather the figurative one, used to describe a presence or situation that is oppressive, irritating, or unbearable.
Lourd, in which the ‘d' often goes unpronounced, gets an ‘e' tacked on in between the ‘r' and ‘l', to become relou.
Like lourd, relou is used to talk about someone or something that is irritating or oppressive, but the verlan version, probably because it is less formal and more slangy, carries a little bit of extra oomph.
Relou is probably most frequently used when talking about a person whose presence or behaviour is or has become oppressive:
Au début, Pierre semblait cool, mais il est devenu trop relou – At first, Pierre seemed cool, but he got really annoying.
Especially when applied to a man, relou usually refers to the sort of guy who makes bad jokes, lacks tact, and doesn't know when their presence is unwanted… think Michael Scott from the Office (or David Brent in the UK version), seen without any sympathy.
Arrête de la draguer tout le temps, t'es relou! – Stop hitting on her all the time, you're a pain in the ass!
It can also be used to describe a disagreeable situation, much like ‘that sucks' in English.
Comment ça se passe, le travail à Paris ? – Je ne fais que métro, boulot, dodo, c'est relou. – How's the job in Paris going? – I do nothing but commute, work, and sleep, it sucks.
5. Vénère
While we're on the theme of being pissed off, vénère is a handy one to have. It's verlan for énervé, meaning ‘irritated', ‘angry', or even ‘pissed off' – the first and last ‘é' are combined (énervé -> vé-éner -> vénère).
As in, Je suis trop vénère, ta soeur m'a piqué mon mec ! – I'm really angry, your sister stole my man!
As it means ‘angry' or ‘irritated', the word vénère is often used by protesters, like the students at the University of Paris Nanterre protesting against the Macron government's 2018 higher education reform, who called themselves Nanterre Vénère.

6. Ouf
For people above a certain age, this might be what you say when you get up from a low chair, but in verlan its meaning is very different.
The word being inverted is fou (crazy).
As well as being used on its own to describe something crazy, mad or generally bizarre, ouf is often seen as part of the phrase un truc de ouf (a crazy thing).
If you saw a film that really blew your mind you might say, c'était un truc de ouf! It was so good!.
Or, to describe a negative experience you might say Je suis bloqué dans un embouteillage, dépuis 8h. C'est un truc de ouf! I've been stuck in a traffic jam since 8 am. It's crazy.

7. Cimer
And just because you're down with the kids, there's no reason to stop being polite. Cimer is the inverted form of merci (thank you).
So if you do someone a favour, you might hear them respond with T’es trop sympa, cimer! – you're too nice, thanks.

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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.