6 of the best French ‘cow’ phrases

From surprise to complaining, language skills to the weather - there are a lot of French expressions that involve cows, here's a few of our favourites.

6 of the best French 'cow' phrases
French cows have truly enriched the language. Photo by Olivier CHASSIGNOLE / AFP

Oh la vache ! – if you’re surprised, shocked or amazed you can exclaim Oh la vache ! (Oh the cow) or simply La vache ! You could use it if someone startled you, if you’re being shown a particularly amazing video or news story or simply as an alternative to ‘Oh my God’ (and yes, French people often use this English expression).

It’s often used by parents as a family-friendly alternative to swearing, but you’ll hear it in all sorts of contexts where letting rip with a putain might be inappropriate.

READ ALSO Cows to bugs: How to ‘swear’ politely in French

C’est vache – literally meaning ‘it’s cow’ this is a slang term to mean something or someone that is tough, strict or difficult. You might use it to describe your brutal gym class instructor, a particularly horrible French exam or a tough task.

This is slangy but not offensive.

Vachement – translated as ‘cowly’ this means very or extremely and is used to add emphasis to your sentences or signal a strong agreement. 

It used to be very popular among younger people but these days it seems to have fallen out of favour. You’ll still see and hear references to it, but maybe wait and see if someone in your peer group uses it first – no-one wants to be the person using the outdated slang.

Parler français comme une vache espagnol – to speak French like a Spanish cow. Cows don’t speak any (human) language of course, so this phrase really means someone who speaks French badly – dodgy grammar, terrible accent etc.

It’s rare that anyone would say this directly to you, but it’s a good one to wheel out if you want to raise a smile and break the ice if you’re not too sure of your French verb tenses. 

Il pleut comme vache qui pisse – it’s raining like a pissing cow. This is a great and truly descriptive expression for when it’s raining really heavily. The politer option is il pleut des cordes – it’s raining rods – but if you want  a slightly ruder expression, go for the pissing cow.

Transpire comme un beouf – another weather-related one. In English we sweat ‘like a pig’ in French one sweats like a bullock – in French une vache is a cow, un taureau is a bull and a bullock (or adolescent bovine) is un bœuf.

So if you’re looking for a good description for those August days in the city when descending onto the Metro is like entering the fifth circle of Hell, this is for you. 

READ ALSO ‘Duck cold’ – 7 French animal-related weather phrases

And as we’re on the subject – French cows don’t say ‘moo’ they say ‘meuh’ – here’s the full list of French animal noises.

Do you have a favourite French phrase that involves cows? Tell us about it! Email [email protected]

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‘So grateful for opportunities in France’ – from new arrival with no French to police high-flier

She moved to France at the age of five with her British parents, not speaking a word of French but now Georgia Ellis has completed her education and been accepted onto a fast-track programme for high fliers in the French police.

'So grateful for opportunities in France' - from new arrival with no French to police high-flier

Georgia Ellis, 24, came to Charente, in 2002, at the age of five, when her detective parents decided to swap the busy UK capital for a quieter, slower, life in the rural south west of France.

And now the naturalised French citizen is following in her parents’ footsteps – becoming one of just 35 people to qualify for a place on a fast-track scheme in the French police.

Georgia didn’t always plan on a career in the police, but said: “I’d got to the end of my studies – and I think with everything going on with Covid as well, I thought it’s interesting to do something that helps society and that has a direct impact on the community.” 

Understandably proud mum Maggie said that Georgia knew next to no French when the family arrived in 2002: “Bonjour, au revoir, merci and s’il vous plaît – that was about it,” she said.

“We’d come on holidays together over a period of about 18 months together with her – and she always seemed to communicate with children on the beach … kids just get on, don’t they?”

READERS TIPS: How to raise bilingual children in France

Georgia, she said, was thrown into the deep end with learning the language just about from day one.

“When she got to school on the first day, the headteacher had changed from the one we had meetings with earlier – and they had no idea who this child was who had turned up… They found one teacher in the school who spoke a bit of English and it all fell into place.”

But, like many young children before and after her, Georgia soon picked up the language. “It was about six months before she could fully understand what was being said to her, and about 12 months before she was fully fluent.

“She was lucky in that she was the only English child in the tiny school she was at – she had to speak French, there was no alternative.”

Several years later, after passing through collège, Georgia moved away to board at a lycée Angoulême because she wanted to learn Chinese, where she studied a language bac.

“She did find it quite easy to pick up languages,” Maggie said, “and she got a mention très bien in her bac.”

READ ALSO How learning a language as a child opened up France and the world to me

From there, she studied languages and law at Nantes, including a six-month Erasmus period at Grenada, Spain. She was accepted into an international law and global governance Masters at the Sorbonne – and spent six months in Melbourne, returning to France shortly before the Covid-19 lockdown. 

It was about this time that Georgia’s French nationality came through. She had applied shortly after the Brexit vote in the UK, and had been approved in 2018, but her time in Australia followed by the health situation delayed the formalities for some time.

“She wanted to do something to give a bit back to her adopted country – and this was more or less the first time she thought of a career with the police.”

Maggie added: “Georgia has achieved all this through her own hard work, determination and perseverance, and the education system here in France that has rewarded her endeavours with the chance to study abroad, and to obtain her degrees and Masters, without having to incur student debts.

“She has worked in hospitality when her study workload allowed, in order to make a little extra for living expenses but both she and we are so grateful for the opportunities and lifestyle that France has afforded us.”

To get to this stage, Georgia had to go through an intensive preparatory course, including physical and written examinations. 

And the hard work starts again in September, when the fast-track course begins in Lyon.

Georgia explained that she could end up working anywhere in the country once her training period ends. “When you finish your training period, a list of postings comes out, and where you can go depends on your ‘rank’ at the end of the training period.

“Most of it’s in ‘securite publique’ – which is mainstream policing. You can choose to go to Paris, or what they call the Provinces – other towns. For the beginning of my career, maybe going to Paris will be a good idea.”

Even then, her life will not be exactly settled. “We have to move about a lot. The first posting is two years, and then we have to move every four years. You can do that a lot more easily in Paris, because you can move to different places in bigger police stations.”

But she’s hoping her placement period during training will be rather closer to home. “For the placement, we get to choose where we do that – I’m hoping to do that in Bordeaux because it’s not too far away, but I don’t know the city that well … and the south of France would be nice at some stage!”