When you’re learning a language, you get to a certain point where you can go beyond standard vocabulary and work on slang.
Most languages have some kind of slang. It’s a natural linguistic development that allows people to share a sort of code, to dissimulate, or in some cases, just to have fun with words and ideas.
There are many subsets of slang (argot) in French, both old and new. But the best-known is called verlan. Verlan’s name is the phonetic transcription of l’envers (backwards), backwards. Let’s find out why that is, how to use verlan, and just how popular this form of French slang is today.
What is verlan?
Verlan is a form of slang that involves reversing the syllables of a word. For instance, femme (woman, wife, girlfriend) in verlan is meuf. The “m-uh” sound of at the end of femme (in French, when syllables are being counted, a silent “e” is pronounced “uh”) becomes the first syllable (meu) of its verlan equivalent, and the “f” sound of its first syllable becomes the sound of its last syllable (f).
As you can see from this example, it’s not just a matter of using the same letters in a different order. Verlan is, first and foremost, spoken, so its written form is phonetic. Ironically, while it can be complicated to get a handle on verlan, this phonetic aspect actually makes its words easier to spell than many standard French words!
If you want to use a verlan verb, that’s also a lot easier, since they’re only used in their infinitive/past participle form. In other words, you just keep the verb the same and work around it. You wouldn’t conjugate it into a complex tense, find different endings for it, etc. For instance: T’as entendu pour Axel? Il s’est fait pécho par les keufs. (Did you hear about Axel? The cops got him.).
This said, not all verlan is so simple. Sometimes, there’s an instinctive or aesthetic choice when it comes to words.
Take the word keuf, which we just saw in the previous example. It comes from the word flic (“cop”) – which, interestingly, is already a slang word for “police officer”. The word’s verlan version, keuf, doesn’t include an “l”, despite is very clear pronunciation in flic.
A very common verlan word that’s no longer in use was beur (more on this later). Can you guess the standard French word it comes from? Here’s the answer: arabe.
It seems that there are certain sounds that would be clumsy or disagreeable to the ear, so they’re left out when the word is reordered into verlan.
This is why it can be hard for non-native speakers (and probably many native speakers who aren’t “cool” or “down”) to create their own verlan words and expressions. Still, if you’re hanging out with friends who aren’t judging you and you’re able to be yourself, you could give it a try….
Why should I learn verlan?
Reading that last paragraph, you might think, I don’t care about being “cool”. I don’t like a lot of pop culture stuff. I just want to learn standard, mainstream French.
Well, here’s the thing: some verlan expressions have actually become a part of the standard French language, and can be found in most dictionaries. You’ll come upon them in many places, including song lyrics, YouTube video titles, French TV series and movies, and dialogues in French books.
So, even if you don’t want to become a master of verlan or dwell on it very long, it’s good to at least be aware of it, and to know some of the most common verlan words, which we’ll get to a little further on.
Where does verlan come from?
Some form of verlan probably existed in France as early as the Middle Ages. An example of centuries-old verlan may come from none other than French Enlightenment megastar François-Marie Arouet , a.k.a. Voltaire. Some sources claim that Voltaire’s nom de plume comes from the inversed syllables of Airvault, a town where his family had roots.
The more I get to know the French language, the more I understand why verlan has existed for so long. As a native English speaker with a kid who’s learning to read in French schools, I’m continually surprised by how different our basically similar languages (same alphabet, many similar sounds, etc.) are when it comes to the building blocks of words.
The French tend to think of words as composed of syllables. My son has a lot of learning games at home and at school that involve dividing words into syllables, not sounding out letters like we often do in English. This is because, when you think about it, many French sounds are made up of combinations of letters (ch, ou, eille, ai, etc.), rather than just one.
Despite its long history, verlan only really became familiar to the general population around World War II, when it was used by the French to communicate in secret and confuse the Germans during the Occupation.
Verlan grew in popularity as it was adopted by pop culture. Renaud’s song Laisse béton (Laisse tomber), and film titles like the 1984 hit Les Ripoux (literal translation: “The crooked cops”) are two early examples. Since then, as I’ve mentioned, verlan has appeared everywhere from lyrics (it’s especially prevalent in hip-hop and rap), to TV shows and films, to, of course, everyday speech for many French people.
Who uses verlan?
Although some verlan words have become a part of mainstream French culture, and even officially entered the French language, some social groups are particularly associated with it.
This makes sense – after all, slang in any culture or language is usually something created by a particular group to identify themselves, keep secrets, and find new ways of self-expression. In the 19th century, verlan was associated with the criminal underworld. During World War II, it was a way for the French to confuse German occupiers.
From the late 20th century, to the present, verlan has been associated with hip-hop and rap music, and young people in general, especially urban youth and children of immigrants.
That’s one of the reasons beur (arabe) was one of the most common verlan words. It was first used by the children of immigrants from former French colonies Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. They’re a minority who are often looked down on and associated with criminal behavior. Beur allowed them to identify themselves with pride and assertiveness.
In 1998, the French football (soccer) team won the World Cup. The sort of unofficial slogan the team was “black-blanc-beur”, a play on the French flag’s colors (bleu, blanc, rouge). The idea of adopting the general slang term black for players of African descent (also a group that often experiences prejudice in France) and the verlan moniker for Arab youth, was a way to show that sports are the great unifier and equalizer.
Today, the word beur has fallen out of favor by the community. The preferred term is rebeu, which is derived from double verlan (more on that a little further on).
Still, verlan persists. You can find it in many places, from pop culture, to everyday spoken French.
Even if they’re not particularly young or cool, most French people at least recognize many common verlan words. Interestingly, one that I’ve heard a few older people use on occasion is barjot (sometimes spelled barjo), verlan for jobard, an old-fashioned word that means “crazy”. I have to confess that until researching this article, I had no idea that barjot was verlan. The word is very common, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use its standard French equivalent!
A list of common verlan words
Any word can be transformed into verlan, and you’ll find many lists online that include all sorts of them. But here are the verlan words you’ll hear most often in contemporary France, and should be familiar with:
barjot (sometimes written barjo) (originally: jobard) – crazy/a crazy person. As mentioned previously, its origin word, jobard, is fairly uncommon in contemporary standard French – this verlan form is actually better-known! You’ll often hear “barjot” accompanied by complètement or totalement. Example: Il est totalement barjo, ce keum. (He’s fricking crazy, this guy.)
caillera (originally: racaille) – a delinquent, specifically a thug from the ghetto. Note that, like its word of origin, racaille, caillera is always feminine. Example: Son fils est une caillera. (Her son is a thug.)
chanmé (originally : méchant) – terribly cool. Tu as entendu cette chanson de Christine and the Queens ? C’est chanmé. (Have you heard this song by Christine and the Queens? It’s amazing.)
keum (originally: mec) – guy, boyfriend. Note that mec is also a slang term and, at least from what I’ve experienced, a lot more common.
Laisse béton (originally: Laisse tomber) – Forget it./Drop it. This phrase is slightly outdated, but very easily recognized by most French people today. It’s one of the first verlan expressions that entered mainstream French culture, thanks to Renaud’s 1978 eponymous hit single.
meuf (originally: femme) – girl, girlfriend. This may be one of the most commonly used verlan words. You can find it everywhere from hip-hop music to “fun” titles in stodgy news segments. Femeu is the double verlan equivalent (more on this a little later on).
ouf (originally: fou) – crazy. Note that when you’re talking about a person, you can just call them ouf, but if you’re talking about an idea, event, etc., you have to say de ouf. This comes from the tendency in standard French of using de to emphasize something. Example: Matthieu est ouf. (Matthieu is crazy.) vs. C’est un truc de ouf! (This thing/event is crazy!). And no, that’s not a typo – de doesn’t change to d’, even though it’s followed by a vowel.
pécho (originally: choper) – to catch, steal, get caught; by extension, to pick up (seduce) someone. Examples: 1. Il s’est fait pécho. (He got caught.) 2. J’ai pécho (I picked someone up/I got someone to fall for me.)
reum (originally: mère) – mom/mum. A few years ago, a silly movie called Ma reum was released. It’s a family film about a seemingly nice mom who goes to crazy lengths to defend her bullied son. The tone of the movie, as well as the target demographic, show how much some verlan words really are a part of mainstream French culture.
ripou/ripoue/ripoux/ripoues (originally: pourri(e)) – someone or something that is corrupt, especially a corrupt cop. This term isn’t used very often in everyday French life, but if you like mysteries, thrillers, and true crime, you’re very likely to come across it. Here’s a trailer for the 1984 hit French movie Les ripoux, which includes an explanation of what the word means.
teubé (originally: bête) – stupid. BE VERY, VERY CAREFUL not to confuse this and the next entry on our list! T’es vraiment teubé ! (You’re really stupid !)
teub/teube (originally: bite) – dick (penis). Note that this refers to anatomy, not an insult.
vénère (originally: énervé(e)) – angry. Example: Tu as cassé la fenêtre ?! Ta reum sera trop vénère ! (You broke the window ? Your mom’s going to be so angry!)
zarbi (originally: bizarre) – strange, bizarre.
How can I learn verlan?
Keep in mind that many of these words won’t be easily recognized by most French people – and that some may be outdated or not really used much.
Even if these words do or did exist in verlan, as with all slang, it can be hard to tell which ones are actually used by the “cool” people, and not people who are pretending to be cool. So, when you come across a word in verlan, it’s a good idea to type it into an online search engine. If the only results that come up seem to be, say, French academics or French teachers talking about it, it’s probably no longer legit.
The evolution of verlan: Double verlan
Some verlan words seem here to stay, whether that means within the community that created them, or in mainstream French – or both. But others have been replaced by a different incarnation of verlan.
Known as “double verlan” or “veul”, it involves transforming words that are already in verlan, based on the rules of verlan.
Some of this is just a natural part of slang – always innovating and changing. But in certain cases, there may be a subtext, as well. I wrote earlier about the term beur, which is verlan for arabe.
When the term beur was adopted by the general public, its power was lost. So, that’s one of the reasons the new “cool” verlan-related way to say arabe/beur is the double verlan term rebeu.
As you can see, the rules for creating a verlan term were applied to this already-verlan term: The syllables of beur were switched around, with an “e” sound in the middle for good measure.
Another common double verlan word is femeu. Can you guess what it means?
The answer is: meuf, verlan for femme.
Is verlan still cool?
It’s hard to say if verlan is considered cool as of this writing. Part of the reason is that so many verlan words are now a part of regular, informal French. Another issue is the fact that people view and use slang differently, depending on where they come from, who they hang out with, what their interests are, and so on.
The Local’s coverage of France has some very interesting articles about verlan. In this one, they make an intriguing suggestion: verlan’s coolness seems to come and go in waves. In certain decades, it’s chébran (branché – cool, trendy), in others, not so much.
On the other hand, here’s a recent article from another source that gives a brief explanation of some of the slang the teens are using today. Like most guides for parents of teens, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the overall idea in this one makes sense to me, based on what I experience every day in Paris, as well as what I hear in French pop music and YouTube videos: Essentially, the current “cool” slang includes some verlan terms but is an eclectic mix of different influences, and a lot of it reflects influences like the global internet (yes, French teenagers do say “swag”, though sometimes ironically).
My neighbors’ kids here in Paris (14 and 20 years old) confirm this, for what’s it’s worth. They even use one word that’s a hybrid of internationally-influenced slang and verlan: deuspee, verlan for the adopted English word “speed” (whose meaning in French is the equivalent of “fast” or “rushed”)!
So, does that mean you shouldn’t use verlan if you want to sound cool in French? Not necessarily. For one thing, don’t forget that verlan is a part of the French language, so it’s not completely incorrect or old-fashioned.
If you want to give it a shot, try using a few of the most common verlan terms at first. Don’t overdo it, especially as a foreigner – otherwise, it won’t sound sincere. And always make sure your language matches the situation and the people you’re hanging out with. Although it might be funny for an onlooker, you probably don’t want to use verlan when visiting an elderly French person, when you’re at work (although that depends on your work environment and job…), and so on.
Verlan is a rich, fascinating category of French slang, and it’s helpful to recognize some of its most commonly used terms. Beyond that, getting into verlan à donf (à fond – deeply), or deciding to laisse béton is up to you.