The French ‘insults’ that are actually compliments

Being called old, fat or a bloodsucker might normally be fighting talk, but lower your fists - in France these are actually terms of affection.

The French 'insults' that are actually compliments
Check that you are definitely being insulted before you lose your temper. Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

While the French language has of course come up with many and varied options to insult someone, there are some phrases that only sound offensive.

READ ALSO The 9 best French insults for use when you're very, very cross

Who are you calling old? Photo: AFP

In fact some of France's most common terms of endearment sound distinctly offensive to Anglophone ears.

Here are some of our favourites

Ma grande (my big girl)

Being called tall or big isn't necessarily an insult of course, but it's not something that English speakers would regularly wheel out. In France, however, ma grande is a very common term of affection for women or girls. It's most commonly used by older people and is perhaps best translated as 'my dear'.

It's best used among friends so if you are tempted to call a colleague or someone you don't know well ma grande then don't, like 'my dear' it can come across as patronising. There is a male equivalent (mon grand) but it's less common.

READ ALSO 12 French insults we'd love to have in English

Grosse (fatty)

This has got to be an insult, right? No, but it is very colloquial and usually used by young people.

It is usually translated as 'babe' or 'hun' – ça va, grosse ? Ben oui, merci, grosse – You OK hun? Yeah, thanks babe.

This too exists for men, ça va gros ? – You alright mate?

Mon vieux/ ma vieille – old man/old woman

Mentioning the age of a lady, in particular, is generally seen as something of a no-no, but in France cheerfully referring to someone as old as quite common.

This does have its English equivalent of course, but while 'old man' or 'old boy' are now rarely heard outside World War II movies, in France it is still frequently heard to refer to mon vieux or (for a woman) ma vieille if you mean mate or pal.

As a side note, in French-speaking Cameroon calling someone vieille marmite – an old cooking pot – is also a nice thing since it's calling them a good cook. 

Who's my chicken then? You are. Photo: AFP

Poule/poulette (chicken)

Calling someone a chicken in English is to invite confrontation since you're doubting their courage, but in France ma poule or poulette is a cosy term of affection for women, used by lovers and family members alike.

It's only when the chicken gets wet that you need to worry.

While calling someone poule means that you love them, calling them poule mouillée (a wet hen) means that they are a coward. So you can (if you're English) legitimately take offence if someone tells you les anglais sont tous des poules mouillées – the English are all cowards. 

Puce (flea)

Probably at the bottom of most people's list of favourite animals, it's nonetheless good to be a flea in France. It's a very common term of affection, usually used between lovers.

Tu me manques, ma puce – I miss you, baby.

Check out that sexy cannon. Photo: AFP

Canon (cannon)

You're a large, heavy weapon that can seriously maim or kill? That's a good thing, though. While the primary meaning of canon in French is the same as in English – a cannon – it has a secondary meaning, that you're steaming hot, gorgeous and stunning.

So you can strut a bit in the street if you overhear someone describing you as un mec canon (a gorgeous guy) or une nana canon (a smokin' hot girl).

Biche (deer)

Sounding dangerously like 'bitch' to anglophone ears, ma biche is in fact a nice little term of endearment for women. Calling someone ma biche (my doe) is like calling them honey. For a cuter version you can also use ma bichette or ma bibiche

Loulou (wolfy)

Deriving from loup – the French word for wolf – mon loulou is a common term of endearment for men and – especially – young boys.

Wolves are far from universally popular in France, especially with farmers in the areas in south west and eastern France where they roam, but there's no conflict with calling your favourite nephew 'my little wolfy'.



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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.