Cows and bugs: How to 'swear' politely in French

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Cows and bugs: How to 'swear' politely in French
There are times when swearing is not appropriate. Photo: AFP

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.


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







Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also