Cows and bugs: How to ‘swear’ politely in French

French has a rich selection of gros mots for when it all gets a little too much - but here are some politer alternatives for when you need to let off steam in front of your kids, your mother-in-law or some passing nuns.

Cows and bugs: How to 'swear' politely in French
There are times when swearing is not appropriate. Photo: AFP

We've written a lot on the joys of really good French swearing, the best French swear word of all time and the expressions you need when you are really very angry indeed.

READ ALSO The nine best French insults (for use when you're very, very cross)

But trotting these out won't always be appropriate, and here is where France's wide selection of 'fake' swearwords comes in. Just as in English we might say shoot, sugar or darn when we really mean something far fruitier, so too French has its alternatives.

Here are our favourites

Mince – this literally translates as slim or slender but when you exclaim 'ah mince!' at moment of annoyance you're using the PG version of merde (shit). So it's similar to English-speakers saying 'oh sugar' instead of the much ruder 'oh shit' when they stub their toe/lose their car keys/realise they've been walking down the street with their skirt tucked into their underwear.

Use it like this

Mince ! J'ai oublié mes clefs ! – Drat! I forgot my keys

Mince alors, il a encore brûlé le dîner – Oh shoot, he's burned the dinner again

Punaise – if you've ever had the misfortune to share a bed with a punaise de lit (a bed bug) then you probably will have been swearing. But in this context saying punaise is the family-friendly version of putain (a great a versatile French swear word that is usually translated into English as fuck).

Use it like this

Oh punaise, vous avez vu la longueur de la file ? – Oh heck, have you seen the length of the line?

Punaise !  Le PSG a encore gagné ! – Darn! Paris-Saint-Germain won again!

If you're doing the school run you may want to tone down your language. Photo: AFP

Purée – this means what you would expect – something mashed or pulped like mashed potato.

It's also another substitute for putain and it basically means oh no/oh darn

Use it like this

Tu as vu l'heure ? Purée, on est en retard – Did you see the time? Shoot, we're running late

Purée, il pleut ! – Oh darn, it's raining!

La vache – again an easy literal translation, la vache means the cow. But you can also use la vache ! or oh la vache ! when something surprises or shocks you. It's like a French OMG or holy cow!

Use it like this

Oh la vache, tu m'as fait peur – OMG, you startled me

Tu as vraiment rencontré Jean Dujardin ? Oh la vache – You actually met Jean Dujardin? OMG

Bon sang – good blood, but really the equivalent of good God or my goodness.

Use it like this

Bon sang, ce type est canon – Goodness, that bloke is hot

Bon sang, arrête de te plaindre – For heaven's sake, stop moaning

Meeting your new partner's French grandmother may not be the best time to show off your mastery of putain. Photo: AFP

Saperlipopette – Tintin fans may already know this one, it's the boy detective's catchphrase when things are hotting up and pirates/spies/treasure hunters are on his tail. The Tintin books were of course aimed at a younger audience so they use family-friendly language.

In the English version of the books it's usually translated as 'gadzooks' which shows you that it's also quite old-fashioned.

You won't hear this a lot these days, but people do use it ironically or sarcastically.

Use it like this

Saperlipopette ! Je suis poursuivi – Gadzooks! I'm being followed! 

Donald Trump a menti ? Saperlipopette, je suis choqué – Donald Trump lied? Heavens to Betsy, I'm shocked 

This Twitter user says 'Oh boy, who knew that packing up and moving your whole life on your own when it's 37C would be so exhausting?'


Zut/zut alors – chances are that your school French classes would have taught you zut alors as a safe alternative to swearing, but in fact it's not that common. You will however hear zut on its own quite frequently as a version of dash/darn/damn.

Use it like this

Zut, j'ai oublié de récupérer ma robe chez le teinturier et maintenant ils sont fermés jusqu'en septembre – Blast, I forgot to pick up my dress from the dry-cleaner's and now they're closed until September





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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.