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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Eleven phrases that will let you complain like the French

If there's one trait that appears to unite city dwelling French people with their rural counterparts, rich with poor, old with young its the love of a good complain.

Eleven phrases that will let you complain like the French
Want to join in with the sport of complaining at the local cafe? Photo: AFP

French people are often stereotyped as grumpy and while we would dispute that and say they're actually pretty friendly, it does appear there is national quirk that makes them fond of a good old moan.

So much so that former president François Hollande even went on TV to implore the French to complain less.

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He told the nation in 2014: “There is a sort of illness which is not serious but can be contagious, where we are always deploring and denigrating. You have to be proud!”

The French fondness for complaining can be summed up with the number of different verbs used to describe the activity. Aside from se plaindre which is the most frequently used, you have râler, rouspéter, ronchonner, grommeler, grogner and maugréer which are variously equivalent of to moan, to grouse, to grumble or to bitch.

But if complaining is a national sport in France, then in order to join in you're going to need the vocabulary to do it properly.

Chiant

Chiant/e is the adjective derived from the verb chier which is a vulgar way to say 'to crap' or 'to shit'. 

But despite this chiant/e isn't quite as offensive or distasteful as you might think. 

It is frequently used in conversation to describe something as 'really irritating', 'really annoying' or in more extreme slang 'a pain in the ass'. 

For example you could say, Ce film est super chiant, ne va pas le voir. – This film is super annoying, don't go and see it.

Or in its feminine form: J'en ai marre de ma petite sœur : elle est chiante! – 'I'm sick of my little sister : she's really irritating!'

Assommant 

Similarly, if you want to complain specifically about something being very dull, you could use assommant, which translates as  'boring', 'tedious' or 'stupefyingly dull'. It's stronger than ennuyeux which is the usual word for boring. 

So you could say Son nouveau livre est assommant – His new book is incredibly dull. 

Relou

A verlan word, relou is generally translated as 'that sucks' so it's good for expressing your disbelief or disappointment at a situation.

It's the verlan (reversed) version of lourd, which has a literal meaning of heavy and a figurative meaning of oppressive or unbearable.

The verlan version, which is a more slangy alternative, packs a little more punch.

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.

But you can also use it to describe an annoying situation 

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.

Pagaille

If there's ever any sort of disruption in France (train breakdown, airline strikes, traffic gridlock) then you will need this to complain about it properly.

It's not slang, but it's a colloquial term for “mess” or “shambles” or even “chaos” or “bedlam” 

It's often used in news reports, so when when trains were blocked at Montparnasse station in Paris because of a power cut newspapers naturally referred to it as Pagaille à la gare Montparnasse – chaos at Montparnasse.

If you want to talk about someone or something that is causing chaos, pagaille is usually paired with the verb semer, for example La neige a semé la pagaille –  the snow has wreaked havoc.

You could also use the verb provoquer, as in Une fuite de gaz provoque une belle pagaille au centre-commercial – Gas leak causes absolute mayhem at a shopping centre.

C'est le bordel

And if you want something stronger to express just how chaotic things are, this phrase will come in handy.

Literally, c'est le bordel means 'it's a brothel', but this expression is commonly used in spoken French to express annoyance against something or a situation that's untidy, messy or chaotic, both literally and figuratively as in 'what a bloody mess!' or 'it's mayhem!' or 'what a disaster!'.

It can describe any kind of disorderly situation, as in a traffic jam: C'est le bordel sur l'autoroute avec toute la circulation!  – It's chaos on the motorway with all the traffic! Or, as in a recent headline in French newspaper L'Express, Trottinettes : Paris menace de les interdire, si le “bordel généralisé” persiste – Electric scooters: Paris threatens a ban if the 'general mayhem' continues.

Crever

And if your general sense of disgruntlement has become so high that you think you might die of it, try this one. Crever literally means ‘to puncture', but the meaning we're concerned with in this case is the colloquial one, ‘to die', sometimes translated as ‘to croak' or ‘to snuff it' because of its slangy nature.

It's very informal, so if you are talking to someone whose relative has recently died, don't use this to express your condolences.

But you can use it to generally complain about a situation, such as Je crève la dalle – ‘I'm starving'/'I've really got the munchies' or Je crève de soif – ‘I'm dying of thirst'/'I could really use a drink' or On crève de chaleur ici – ‘We're overheating here'/'It's really hot in here'.

You can also use it to mean to kill, for example Casse-toi ou je vais te crever! – Get out of here or I'm going to kill you!

J'en ai marre

The expression J'en ai marre means 'I'm fed up', 'I'm sick of it' and 'It's getting on my nerves'. 
 
For example, you might say: J'en ai marre de tes retards incessants! –  'I've had it with you constantly being late!'
 
Or, J'en ai marre de ces grèves! Toujours la grève! – 'I'm fed up of these strikes! Always strikes!'
 
The infinitive of the expression is en avoir marre ('to be fed up', 'to be sick of'). 
 
The expression, while informal, is not rude or impolite – as long as you're not telling someone that you're fed up of them to their face, of course. 

J'en peux plus

Slightly more dramatic is J'en peux plus – I can't take it any more. It's important to note that the absolutely correct version of this expression is je n'en peux plus but like so many phrases in French the ne is often dropped in everyday usage. 

It's used for when you're getting to the end of your tether, for example Le bébé pleure tout le temps, j'en peux plus – The baby cries all the time, I can't do it any more. 

Or maybe for relationship woes – Il est saoul tout le temps, j'en peux plus – He's drunk all the time, I've had it.

Ras-le-bol

This is one of those expressions that doesn't really have an exact English translation, although its general sense is also that of being fed up, despondent, gloomy or annoyed.

Very widely used in France, it's literal translation is “my bowl is full” but its sense is definitely negative. It can be used both to say that you are fed up and to describe a general sense of gloom over a group or even an entire country.

So you could say J'en ai ras-le-bol de l'école! – I'm fed up of school!

In the wider sense, you could use Drome, Ardeche: ras-le-bol des moustiques – Drome, in the Ardeche, is fed up with mosquitoes

Or Après l'augmentation des impôts, du prix de l'essence et du gaz, il y a eu une sorte de ras-le-bol général – following the increase and taxes and the hike id petrol an gas prices, there was a sort of general despondency.

Tu m'emmerdes

If you want to be a little more direct and complain directly to someone, rather than just about them, this is a good one to use. Tu m'emmerdes literally translates as 'you're shitting on me' but really it means something like 'you're pissing me off'.

For example you might say: Tu m'emmerdes avec tes questions – You're getting on my nerves with all your questions.

If you're talking about someone or something, you would use emmerdant which means 'annoying', 'irritating' or 'aggravating' as in Mon voisin est emmerdant, il joue de la musique toute la nuit – My neighbour is so annoying, he plays his music all night long.

Putain

We couldn't let an article about general disgruntlement go without mentioning this one. Much has been written about the many, many ways you can use putain, but it's certainly useful for general complaining.

Interestingly for a word that's generally translated into English as fuck, you can use putain for relatively mild grumbling, sighing Ah, putain! as the queue in the post office fails to move, or Oh putain as you accidentally hit the wrong button on your computer.  

But if you want to ramp it up, it's all in the emphasis – Putain! Fait attention imbecile! – Fuck! Be careful you moron! at the motorist who has failed to observe priorité à droite and narrowly avoided hitting you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Member comments

  1. My experience has been that the French grumble, but do not complain. When they get less than satisfactory service, they pay the bill, but swear never to use the service-provider again. Whereas I, and, I would have thought, most Brits, say we are dissatisfied with (normally) a service, with details, and I receive either a cancellation or, at least, a reduction in the charge. In such circumstances, I don’t use any of your (very useful) list of grumbling words, although they do come in handy in other face-to-face situations.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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