Oh là là – a French cliché that is actually true, the French really do say oh là là and they say it a lot. We should point out though that it’s oh, not oooh, and it doesn’t mean that something is sexy or flirty, the way it is often used in English.
Oh là là can be either a good or a bad surprise while its stronger cousin oh là là là là là là (always 6) is usually bad. You’ll hear it a lot during sports commentary when a player has just missed an absolutely nailed on certainty of an open goal.
Oh là là, c’est magnifique ! Merci mille fois – Oh my god, it’s gorgeous! Thank you so much
READ ALSO How the French really use oh là là
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Putain – France’s most versatile word strikes again, putain is used for all types of surprise – it’s usually for something bad but not exclusively.
How strong the word is really depends on how you say it, if you laughingly exclaim ‘Oh putain !‘ when your colleague taps you on the shoulder while you were daydreaming then that’s pretty mild.
If on the other hand the work experience kid spills boiling hot coffee in your lap and you scream ‘Argh, putain !‘ that basically says ‘I am very shocked and annoyed right now. Hide’.
La vache – A slightly more family friendly option is exclaiming ‘the cow’!
La vache is frequently used as an alternative to swearing if you’re in polite company or around kids. If you see something surprising or are shown an image that is bizarre then exclaiming ‘Oh, la vache !‘ is a good option that roughly means ‘Oh, I don’t believe it!’
Bon sang – Also more commonly heard from grandmothers and parents of small children is bon sang (good blood) which is roughly equivalent to ‘oh for heaven’s sake’ or ‘good grief’ and is therefore usually used in a negative way.
Bon sang ! Il a renversé du lait sur le sol – For heaven’s sake! He’s spilled milk all over the floor
Mon dieu – My god is used in roughly the same way as in English, to react to something surprising or unexpected, whether that is bad or good. The English expression OMG (Oh My God) is now very common online in France, and sometimes you’ll even hear French people saying ‘Oh my God’ in English at times of surprise.
Mon dieu, son diamant est énorme – My god, her diamond is enormous
Tu es sérieux, ou quoi ? – If you’re being told something that is so surprising that you just can’t believe it, you might ask ‘Are you serious, or what?’ or the shorter sérieusement – seriously?
La langue française a un temps grammatical uniquement pour écrire des romans ? Tu es sérieux ou quoi ? – The French language has a grammatical tense purely for writing novels? You have got to be joking?
Tu blagues ? – similar to the above, you might also ask ‘are you joking’ or ‘are you kidding?’
Gérard Depardieu est candidat à l’élection présidentielle de 2022 ? Tu blagues ? – Gérard Depardieu is running for president in 2022? You’re kidding?
These two phrases are both used with ‘tu‘ because they are in general informal phrases used between friends. You could ask the fonctionnaire Vous êtes sérieux ? when he tells you that you need to fill out all your forms again, but it’s likely to come over as pretty rude with someone you don’t know so we wouldn’t advise it.
MDR – if you’re communicating by text messages or on social media and you want to convey that you’re laughing at something bizarre or surprising then you’ll want MDR – mort de rire (dead of laughing) – it’s the French equivalent of LOL and you’ll see it a lot on social media or in text messages or WhatsApp groups.
Je suis choqué(e) – if you want to literally say that you’re shocked by something, je suis choqué conveys that. Like its English translation it can also be used sarcastically to show that you’re not shocked at all and it’s probably more common in this context.
Le gouvernement a augmenté les impôts après avoir promis de ne pas le faire ? Je suis choqué – The government has raised taxes after promising not to? I am shocked
Je n’en reviens pas – If you’re truly shocked, you can say ‘I’m not coming back from it’. Je n’en reviens pas is handy because as well as expressing your shock in the moment, you can also use it after the fact to show that you still can’t get over what you’ve witnessed or learned.
J’ai vu les deux s’embrasser à côté de la Tour Eiffel. Je n’en reviens pas – I saw the two of them kissing by the Eiffel Tower. I’m still not over it.
C’est énorme ! – In French, you can say ‘It’s enormous!’ to describe something’s that’s great, like a huge piece of good news, or to express your surprise.
Les billets sont gratuits ? C’est enorme ! – The tickets are free? That’s amazing!
Sacre bleu – don’t bother with this one. Despite an apparent rule that all headlines about France in English-language newspapers must use the phrase sacre bleu it’s actually pretty rare in France.
It’s extremely old-fashioned so if you do hear it the speaker is likely to be quite elderly. Trying to slip it into conversation with a group of young people is a bit like exclaiming ‘cripes’ or ‘heavens to Betsy’ in English.