What does “Merde” mean exactly? (it’s not just “shit”)

Merde means “shit” or “crap” in French. It can also mean “Break a leg” (the traditional way theater actors wish each other luck before a performance).

If you’re not a fan of swear words, you may be wondering why we’re devoting an entire article to this one. When you learn a language, you should ideally know all of it, not just the “clean” stuff. This is especially true for French.

Despite the fact that French people are usually quite polite, they don’t typically censor swear words on TV or in movies, and many French people use at least a few swear words in their everyday life. According to at least two recent surveys, merde is the one they’re most likely to use.

So whether you hope to master it so that you can use it like a native speaker one day, or whether you’re just here to be sure you can recognize it if you come across it, let’s learn more about merde, including its many common derivatives!

What does merde mean?

Closeup of a woman's lipsticked lips curled in a frustrated, tooth-baring snarl.

Merde has two major meanings in French. One is much more common than the other.

  1. Merde means “shit” or “crap.” This is the way you’ll see it used in most cases. As with “shit” or “crap” in English, it can be used on its own or as part of a sentence or phrase.
  2. Merde means “Break a leg” – that is, the way theater actors say “Good luck” before a performance. The reason why gives a colorful picture of the past. Back before cars, people would take a carriage to the theater. If so many people were showing up for a performance that there was stand-still traffic, the horses would inevitably have to relieve themselves in front of the theater. And so, merde being tracked into the theater was a (stinky…) sign that the show was a success!

You may hear Merde used to mean “Good luck” in other contexts, but this isn’t particularly common, so unless you’re talking to an actor before a show, it’s best to just say Bonne chance.

Is merde an important word in French?

Merde is the most common French swear word. It’s also very old, with roots going even beyond the Latin merda to the Indo-European root *s-merd. This means that many very, very old languages had a similar word to merde!

Although merde and its derivatives aren’t considered polite or approved of by everyone, they’re very present in the French language and culture – and have been for quite some time. In fact, a euphemism for merde that you might hear is le mot de Cambronne (Cambronne’s word). This comes from a legend that the Napoleonic army general either defiantly said Merde to British troops who asked for his surrender, or simply exclaimed Merde ! when he realized he and his troops were surrounded.

Cambronne always denied saying this word in either context, but the legend stuck. At the very least, it shows that the word was in use, even quite possibly by very polite generals, more than 200 years ago.

Some common phrases and expressions with merde

An ice cream cone lies fallen on the ground, its contents spilled from its cone. A truly tragic and anger-inducing sight!
Et merde.

Merde has been around long enough to have a number of significant common phrases and derivatives.

Some of the most common are:

de merde – shitty/fucking. This can be used to show you’re upset or just that you think something is dumb or poorly made.  Examples:

C’est une chanson de merde. (It’s a shitty song.)

Putain de vélo de merde ! (Fucking shitty bike!)

de la merde – shitty/crap. Example:

C’est de la merde, cette emission. (This TV show is shitty/is crap.)

Et merde. – Well, shit. This is often said after something bad – but not extremely serious – happens. For instance, say you grab a box of cookies and then drop it into the garbage by mistake: Et merde !

Et puis merde ! – Fuck it/It’s done/I’m done. Despite starting with Et (And), this is used as a standalone expression.

foutre la merde – to stir up shit/cause trouble. Example:

Claude a foutu la merde dans leur couple et ils ont rompu. (Claude stirred up shit in their relationship and they broke up.)

foutre dans la merde – to get someone into trouble/deep shit. Example:

Je lui ai fait confiance et il m’a foutu dans la merde. (I trusted him and he got me into deep shit.)

se foutre dans la merde – to get oneself into deep shit. Example:

Je me suis foutu dans la merde.  (I got myself into some deep shit.)

Merde alors !– For crying out loud/Damn it! This is a bit of a gentle merde expression compared to the others on our list.  

Tu es une merde. – You’re a real piece of shit.

Bordel de merde ! – Fucking hell!/Goddamn it!

Putain de merde !  Fucking shit! This combination of the two most common French swear words is what French people say when they’re really mad

Putain de bordel de merde ! – Holy fucking shit! This is what French people say when they’re really, REALLY mad!

Common words related to merde

A puzzle with many small pieces has partially completed sections on a table. One person is moving a piece while we see the hand of another in the corner foreground, perhaps leaning by their face as they think.
J’en ai marre de ce puzzle ! Démerde-toi !

There are a number of words related to merde in French. Here are the most common:

merdique – shitty/crappy. Example:

Ta bagnole est vraiment merdique. (Your car is really shitty/A real piece of shit.)

merder – to screw up, to do something badly. Example:

Tout allait bien et puis j’ai merdé. (Everything was going well and then I screwed up.)

merdasse – a more vulgar version of merde, and thus sort of funny. The French suffix -asse usually implies an additional level of vulgarity.

emmerder – 1. to annoy/bug someone/to piss someone off. Literally “to put someone in shit”. Example:

Arrête de m’emmerder ! (Stop bugging me!/Fuck off!)

2. Can be used in a stronger sense with tu or vous to mean Piss off/Fuck you:

 Je t’emmerde ! (Fuck you/Piss off!)

s’emmerder – to be bored shitless. Example:

Je m’emmerde à l’école. (I’m bored shitless at school.)

un emmerdeur/une emmerdeuse – a pain in the ass. Fun fact: L’emmerdeur is a classic French film about a suicidal man who unwittingly foils the plans of an assassin.

Example:

Je ne peux pas supporter Lucas – c’est un vrai emmerdeur ! (I can’t stand Lucas – he’s such a pain in the ass!)

une emmerde – a problem/hassle. Usually not too serious. Fun fact: This word has a famous French song tied to it: Charles Aznavour’s Mes Emmerdes, as well as a 2009-2015 French TV series inspired by its refrain: Mes amis, mes amours, mes emmerdes… (My friends, my loves, my problems…). Example:

On a eu une petite emmerde, on sera en retard. (We had a little problem, we’ll be late.)

emmerdant(e) – annoying, frustrating.  Example:

Ton ex sera là ce soir ? Ah, c’est emmerdant. (Your ex will be there tonight. Oh, that’s annoying.)

se démerder – to figure something out/do something oneself. Literally: “Get oneself out of the shit.”  Example:

Démerde-toi ! (Fix it yourself/Figure it out yourself!)

What do French people say instead of merde?

A pot of honey with a wooden spreader.

Whether it’s because they don’t like to say swear words or because they’re in a situation where they can’t, you may hear some French people replace merde with a word that sounds similar. For instance, my French husband’s grandmother used to say Oh miel ! instead of Oh merde ! I’ve also heard of people using the word mercredi.

And as I mentioned earlier, you can also refer to merde as le mot de Cambronne.

Where can I find more words and phrases with merde?

Our list includes the most common merde-related words and  phrases. You can find more in the excellent Wiktionnaire entry for merde.

WordReference also has a good list of additional phrases and expressions with merde.

And if you want to learn some other NSFW vocabulary, feel free to check out our article on French swear words.

Should I say “merde” when I speak French?

As you might be able to tell from their choice of film, TV show, and song titles, French people generally aren’t as uptight about swear words as some other cultures. That said, these words do have their place. Be sure not to use them in polite company, with strangers, or in formal or professional situations. Overall, it’s best to “read the room” – see if the people around you are using them or are keeping it clean.

And there’s also personal preference to take into account, of course. If you don’t like to swear, you certainly don’t have to do it in French. It’s just a good idea to at least recognize these words, since you’ll very likely come across them.


However you feel about French swear words, I hope that tu ne t’es pas emmerdé(e) while reading this article!

Do you have a favorite merde phrase or expression? Feel free to share it in the comments!

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.

2 thoughts on “What does “Merde” mean exactly? (it’s not just “shit”)”

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  1. Back in the ‘70s, Warner Bros cartoons had a prime-time TV slot in the US. One even I was watching with some friends. Pepé le Pew was running around spouting bad franglais, including “sacré merde!” I almost fell off the couch laughing. My friends asked what was so funny and I said that Pepé just said “Holy shit!” On prime-time TV! I guess the censors didn’t know French.

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  2. I once had the good fortune to work as lighting designer for a traveling Parisian theatre company, performing at American college campuses. The actors would all say “merde” to each other and to me before each performance. My simple French/English dictionary had only the literal translation for the word, and I was wondering what I was doing wrong. I finally asked the company manager, who spoke English, why all the cursing. He laughed and explained that “merde” and “break a leg” had the same meaning in the ever-superstitious world of actors. I wonder if there’s a French equivalent to the old English-language superstition that commands actors never to say the name of the “Scottish play?”

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