30 funny (and often NSFW) French words – and how to pronounce them

Like any language, French has its share of funny words and expressions, from sayings that use vivid or silly imagery to get their point across, to words that just sound humorous.

Here are thirty funny French words and expressions that make me chuckle or crack a smile no matter how often I hear them.

Thirty funny French words and expressions

An adorable tabby kitten is surrounded by the folds of a blanket. His little eyes are closed but his head is still up.
Trop chou.

One important thing to note before we get started: a few of the terms on this list are NSFW.

And now for the list….

avoir des oursins dans les poches – to be cheap. Literally translating to “to have sea urchins in your pocket,” this phrase is a very colorful way to express being so cheap that it hurts to get money from your pocket!

Saperlipopette – A rough equivalent of “Whoopsie daisy!” or “Dear me!” or “My goodness!”

un pigeon – although this word can simply refer to an actual pigeon, it also means an easy target for a scam. Ex: Comme il venait de la campagne, les escrocs de la ville l’ont pris pour un pigeon. (Because he came from the countryside, the city’s crooks took him for an easy mark.)

râler – to complain. To me, this word just sounds like someone yelling or whining. I love its adjective and noun form, râleur/râleuse (complaining, a complainer) as well. Ex: Si tu vis avec Charles, bon courage. Il râle tout le temps ! (If you live with Charles, hang in there! He complains all the time!)

grognon/grognonne – grumpy. This word might be even sillier-sounding than its English equivalent. Ex: Tu es grognonne ce matin ! (You’re grumpy this morning!)

ducon (masculine and feminine, although you might see duconne used for a woman) – (royal) asshole. The word con/conne alone means asshole, but adding du is like making the word a royal title. It’s a similar vibe to saying “king (or queen) of the assholes” – at once insulting, descriptive, and funny. Ex: Arrête, ducon ! (Stop, asshole!)

tomber dans les pommes – to faint. For some reason, some long-ago French speaker thought that fainting was perfectly summed up by falling into a pile of apples…and it must have been, because the expression caught on and is very common today!

machin – thing, thingy, what’s-his/her-name. You may have already encountered this informal place- filler of a word and found it odd that essentially you’re using a form of “machine” to say “whatchamacallit”. It seems so scientific!  Ex: C’est quoi ce machin qu’elle a dans les cheveux? (What’s that thing she’s got in her hair?)

machin-truc – thingamajig, What’s-his-or-her-name. A variant of machin, this one literally translates to “thing-thing”, showing a surprising redundancy in a language that usually tries to avoid that.

I often hear machin-truc used to signify someone who’s name you might not know or may have forgotten, with an implication that it’s not important anyway. Ex: Où est Jean? Je pense qu’il sort avec Machin-Truc ce soir. (“Where’s Jean?” “I think he’s going out with What’s-her-name tonight.”)

raplapla – exhausted, deflated. This word is fun to say and sounds sort of like getting the air knocked out of you. Ex: Ça se voit qu’elle a eu une longue journée – elle est raplapla. (You can tell she’s had a long day – she looks exhausted.)

avoir la banane – to be smiling, (the banana is the shape of your smile!)

Je m’en branle – “I don’t give a flying fuck” is how this is often translated into English, but what makes it funny is its literal translation: “I jerk off with it.”  

petit loup – little darling. Many famous French fairy tales feature le grand méchant loup (the Big Bad Wolf), and France has a long history of wolf attacks and werewolf sightings. And yet, somehow, loup can also be a term of endearment. I’ve heard it used by couples, but more commonly to refer to children.

But it doesn’t stop there. The other day, I called to make a vet appointment for my cat and the receptionist asked Il s’appelle comment, votre petit loup ? (What’s your little sweetie’s name?). I had to bite my tongue not to jokingly say, Ce n’est pas un loup, madame, c’est un chat. (It’s not a wolf, ma’am, it’s a cat.).

avoir la pêche – to be cheerful, in a good mood. I guess if you like peaches a lot, this expression makes sense.

sentir le sapin – to have one foot in the grave/to be very dangerous. This expression literally translates to “smell  of pine”, as in a pine coffin. You can use it when talking about a person or a situation, but it’s extremely informal and silly, so don’t use it if you’re seriously expressing concern about someone’s health. You can also use it to imply a situation seems dangerous.

Ex: J’ai vu sa grand-mère l’autre jour. – Elle va bien ? – Non, ça sent le sapin. (“I saw his grandmother the other day.”  “She’s doing well?” “No, she’s on her last legs.”)

Or: Aller dans cette grotte? Je ne pense pas – ça sent le sapin. (Go into this cave? I don’t think so – that seems dangerous.) 

quand les poules auront des dents – when chickens will have teeth. In other words, “It will never happen” (or, to use an English animal expression equivalent, “When pigs fly.”)

Ce n’est pas tes oignons. – That’s none of your business (literally: Those aren’t your onions). You might also come across a common variant: Occupe-toi de tes oignons (Mind your own business – literally, “Take care of your own onions.”)

aux petits oignons – handled with care and attention. This is the second onion-related expression on our list. I think it shows the importance and ubiquity of onions in French cuisine.  Ex: Je vais leur offrir un traitement aux petits oignons. (I’m going to give them special treatment.) 

Chapeau ! – Congratulations! Yep, just saying “Hat” is a way to say “Congratulations” in French.  As you might imagine, it refers to someone tipping their cap to you. I find it funny and adorable – it’s one of my favorite French expressions.

pisser dans un violon – to do something that won’t have any effect. Literally “to piss into a violin”, this expression is a wonderful, vivid way to express uselessness. Ex: Tu veux lui apprendre les bonnes manières? Autant pisser dans un violin. (You want to teach him good manners? It’s hopeless.)

une poule mouillée – a wuss, a wimp. Literally “a wet chicken”.

des tablettes de chocolat – a six pack (visible abdominal muscles). This expression literally means “chocolate bars (where the chocolates are divided into squares)” and can be used that way, as well. But it’s a wonderfully descriptive (and delicious!) way to describe a six pack, especially if, like me, you’re a bigger fan of chocolate than you are of beer!

Ex: Elle dit qu’elle l’aime pour son grand cœur mais je pense que c’est plutôt pour ses tablettes de chocolat. (She says she loves him for his big heart, but I think it’s more for his six pack.)

un ticket de métro – a landing strip. Depending on the context, this expression doesn’t always mean a Metro ticket. It can also refer to a certain way a woman might shave her pubic hair, where there’s a strip of hair in the center – what we’d call a landing strip in English.

A paper ticket (which, sadly, will soon become obsolete) for the Paris Metro does resemble this style choice, due to the dark-colored strip down its center.

chou – my darling, sweetheart/adorable, cute.  Chou means “cabbage,” but it can also be a term of endearment in French. From there, it’s also become an informal adjective.

So you might hear a French person say, Je t’aime, mon chou. (I love you, my dear), or Tu as vu leur nouveau chaton ? Il est trop chou ! (Have you seen their new kitten? He’s too cute!).

Note that chou doesn’t have a feminine form but can be used for someone regardless of their gender.

un bidule – a thing/thingy/whatchamacallit. The third “what’s-it” word on our list sounds especially silly if you get the French “u” pronunciation just right.

plouf – splash. Like many French onomatopoeias, this one is fun to say and sounds a bit silly!  

un cumulus – both a cumulus cloud and a hot water tank.

When I studied French in school, I learned that un cumulus referred to a cumulus cloud. So when I came to live in a Parisian apartment, I was surprised to hear my landlord mention un cumulus in my bathroom. For a moment, it was like being in a Magritte painting!

It turns out that the French also call a hot water tank (the tank that heats water for your home) un cumulus, which is absolutely charming, especially considering the fact that most water tanks in Parisian apartments are encased in white metal and hung high on the wall, a bit like a clunky cumulus cloud in their own way.

farfelu(e) – An eccentric or harebrained person or idea. Ex: Il a des idées absolument farfelues. (He has a lot of crazy ideas.)

la barbe à papa – cotton candy (fairy floss). Literally “dad’s beard”.

nul/nulle – useless, stinks/sucks, bad, loser. This is one of the first French insults I learned when I came to France, but it can be used to simply mean something is bad or useless. It’s versatile and not a total obscenity, so children might use it, too, although it can of course still come off as mean.

Examples: Cette emission est nulle. (This TV show stinks/sucks.)/Tu es un gros nul. (You’re a big loser.)/Je suis nul en maths. (I stink/suck at math.)

What words do the French think are funny?

Piles of onions of different colors in a supermarket or outdoor market.

When I wrote a previous article on beautiful French words, I was surprised to discover two things: 1. There aren’t many large-scale surveys about words the French consider beautiful and 2. in the few surveys I was able to find, French people tended to qualify words as “beautiful” for their meaning, rather than how they sound.

Unfortunately, a search for funny words in French (by native French speakers, not French learners), shows that surveys on this topic are just as rare. On the other hand, unlike beautiful words, things I’ve read on online forums, as well as this list of words the French find funny from popular website Topito, seem to indicate that the French often consider words funny for the way they sound, not necessarily  what they mean.

The Topito list is a great way to discover more funny French words (you might find some others on our list of cool French words). It also gives some insight into which sounds the French tend to find more humorous than others.

Of course, none of these surveys cover the entire French or Francophone population, and when it comes to humor, each of us has our own particular words and expressions that make us chuckle. The more you read and hear French, the more words you’ll come across that might make you laugh. That’s a pretty great thing to look forward to!

Which French words do you find funny? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.