The 10 best French expressions for the everyday exasperation of life

The 10 best French expressions for the everyday exasperation of life
Queue at your favourite boulangerie. Time to start grumbling. Photo: AFP
Every life has its annoying or exasperating moments and life in France is no exception - so what are the best things to say if a certain person, situation or bureaucratic task is just hacking you right off?

From attempting to fill in your 12th form of the morning to the boulangerie running out of bread or nearly being mown down on the street by some kid on scooter, there are some annoyances that are very French indeed.

The French themselves are generally not shy of showing their feelings when something has become simply too much, so don't feel you need to hold back about your total exasperation that your apartment's pipes are leaking for the fifth time this month.

You will however, need some of the right vocabulary to share with the world exactly how annoyed your are, from mild perturbation to full on eye-popping rage.

1. Mince

Let's start with a nice gentle one that you could safely say in front of children, old ladies and priests. Mince is one of several options for 'fake swearing' – the kind of words people use in front of their children. Mince (which actually translates as slim or slender) in this context is the family-friendly version of merde (shit). It's similar to anglophones say oh sugar! instead of oh shit! when something goes wrong. 

You can use it on its own if for example you tread in some merde that a helpful dog-owner has failed to clean up, but you can also use it sympathise with someone.

Mon patron ne me laisse pas prendre de vacances cet été. – Mince! Quelle cauchemar – My boss won't let me take any holiday this summer. – Sugar! What a nightmare.

2. Oh là là

This phrase is widely misused by anglophones, who firstly insist on pronouncing it oooh la la and secondly think it's to be used for commenting on a saucy waitress.

In actual French life oh là là can either mean something is really good or that it's really bad.

So if for example your Metro arrives and it's absolutely packed, you may well hear a muttered oh là là from your fellow commuters before they begin fighting their way into the carriage.

Likewise if the mercury is pushing 40C you could comment Oh là là, je transpire come un bœuf – OMG, I'm sweating like a pig.

For more extreme situations there is the supersized option – oh là là là là là là which conveys that things are really very bad indeed. It's often used by sports commentators if, for example, a player has just missed a completely open goal.

Oh là là là là là là, quelle erreur honteux de l'attaquant – Dear lord, a truly shameful error from the striker

READ ALSO Oh là là – how to really use the best three words in the French language

3. Ras-le-bol

This is a great and very French phrase that basically means to be totally and utterly fed up with something. You can use it for a specific situation or to describe un ras-le-bol général – a sense of collective annoyance, anger or gloom. 

J'en ai ras-le-bol des règles de grammaire française – I am fed up with French grammar rules

Because it's a very distinctive phrase you will often see it cannibalised and corrupted too, such as in ras-le-scoot – the popular blog for people in Paris who are fed up of scooters – and ras-le-viol – a series of posters from a French feminist saying they were fed up of rape culture.

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4. Bordel

Getting into slightly more explicit language we have bordel, a word that literally means a brothel, but is far more commonly used in day-to-day life to express that something is a chaotic or fucked up situation.

Les cheminots sont en grève, c'est le bordel – the train drivers are all on strike, it's chaos.

You can also use it as a punctuation word to add extra emphasis to what you are saying

C'est ridicule ! Bordel ! – This is ridiculous, goddammit!

5. Casse-couille 

Again mildly NSFW, this translates as a ball-break but is really what we would call a total pain in the arse/ass.

Cette déclaration d'impôt n'a aucun sens et la ligne d'assistance téléphonique est toujours occupée. Cette paperasse est vraiement casse-couille – This tax form makes no sense and the helpline is always engaged. This paperwork is a massive ballache 

If you want a more family-friend version there is casse-tête – a head-breaker or headache.

Emmanuel Macron face au casse-tête des retraites – Emmanuel Macron faces the headache of pensions.

6. Putain

Definitely our favourite word in the French language – we've written a whole article/love letter here – partly because it's so versatile.

It's usually translated into English as fuck (although its literal translation is whore) but while you would generally save that for quite extreme situations, putain can be used for everything from mild irritation to full-on nuclear rage.

Arriving at the post office and seeing the queue stretching out of the door, it is perfectly acceptable to softly mutter an ah putain as you contemplate the waste of your lunch break.

At the other end of the scale is this line from the film Matrix Reloaded – Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde de saloperie de connard d'enculer ta mère

Notwithstanding French actor Lambert Wilson's calm demeanor here, this is the kind of phrase that would usually be rolled out high volume at around 4am if your neighbour has woken you for the fourth time that week with his dreadful music and loud lovemaking routine.

 

7. J'en ai marre

If you want to move on from general disgruntlement to talking about yourself and you feelings then the next two phrases are perfect. J'en ai marre means I'm sick of it or I've had enough.

For example – J'en ai marre de tes retards incessants! – I've had it with you always being late!

For English readers of a certain age, this phrase sounds quite similar to someone with a French accent saying the name of The Smiths' guitarist.

By all accounts Johnny Marr was quite sick of it by the time he left the Smiths in 1987. Photo: AFP

8. J'en peux plus

In a similar vein to j'en ai marre is j'en peux plus – I can't take any more. The strictly correct version of the phrase is je n'en peux plus but in everyday life the ne is often dropped, as it is in many other negative phrases.

This is a bit dramatic, but there's nothing wrong with a bit of drama if you feel that you're at the end of your tether.

Il est paresseux, il n'aide pas du tout. Franchement j'en peux plus – He's lazy, he does nothing to help out, quite frankly I've had it

9. Je compte pour des prunes

But if you want to go full melodrama (and no-one is judging here) then these next two phrases are perfect.

In French the phrase compter pour des prunes (literally counting for plums) means something that amounts to nothing or is worthless.

But if you use it about yourself although you are literally saying 'I count for nothing' you would use it in a slightly self-pitying context to mean that people are not paying you attention or taking into account your feelings.

So if you had specifically hinted to your boyfriend last month about your preferred holiday destination and then you find he's gone ahead and booked something else, you could exclaim Mais je déteste le camping ! Je compte pour des prunes ! – But I hate camping! Nobody listens to what I want!

10. Je suis au bout de ma vie

But the gold star for melodrama has got to go to this one – I am at the end of my life.

Not to be used literally, this means that you are exhausted and tired – simply sick of the world. It's usually thrown out in exasperation, for example if you're meeting your friends for drinks but your boss makes you say late, you could say Ils n'arrêtent pas de me filer du taf, je suis au bout de ma vie ! – They keep giving me more work to do, I am dying!

It's a good one to use slightly ironically. No one will think you're actually dying, but it will definitely earn  you sympathy points.

You can also shorten it to simply, je suis au bout and linger on the boooouuuuuut, and everyone will know what you mean. Or, for extra melodrama, say, je suis au bout du bout du bout – I'm at the end of the end of the end.

 

 

 


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