11 ways to express shock or surprise in French

Someone just jumped out at you wearing a ghost costume? Seen something truly weird online? Here are 11 of the best ways to express your shock or amazement in colloquial French.

Surprise and shock in French language
Learned something surprising about France? Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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

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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

More and more French adverts use English words or phrases in a blending of languages that might strike an English-speaker as strange or odd. In reality, this is part of a wider - sometimes polarising - phenomenon that has been going on for decades.

Franglais: Why do French adverts love to use English words?

While wandering around France, you might pass by a bus stop featuring an advertisement not unlike the yogurt advertisement below.

An advertisement by a French bus stop

After examining the poster for a few seconds you might find yourself scratching your head at the seemingly random addition of these non-French words to an advertisement that is intended for French-speaking people. Or – maybe you just chuckle at the play on words with ‘milk’ (lait) and the French word for English, Anglais

And this kind of thing is far from uncommon in France, seemingly random English words are often chucked into French adverts, such as the below Ricard advert with its ‘born à Marseille’ strapline.

The use of English in French advertising is by no means a new trend. It is part of the wider – occasionally controversial – phenomenon of anglicismes – the borrowing of English terms into French that goes back centuries.

But linguist Julie Neveux says that the advertisements we see today are more likely part of a newer current – one that has taken hold in the past two to three decades: les californismes.

“It is true that English has become the language of marketing,” said linguist Neveux, a professor at Sorbonne University who has written a book on the subject: Je parle comme je suis

“The use of English has been ‘cool’ since World War II. I don’t think that has changed in the last 50 years, but in the last ten to 15 we are seeing more californismes than anglicismes.”

The term ‘californisme‘ was coined by French linguist, dictionary editor, and radio personality Alain Rey. He noted that the English words appearing in the French language in recent years are more emblematic of Silicon Valley than of the English language overall.

Neveux explains that while certain terms stem from English-language internet and tech related terms – think: cliquer, scroller, and mail – in France, californismes have become “more visible in every day life and conversation” in large part due to the election of President Emmanuel Macron. 

When campaigning in 2017, Macron lauded his desire for the country to become a ‘start-up nation.’

Macron has in many ways achieved this goal – in 2021, start-ups in France earned over €11.6 billion, an increase of 115 percent in comparison to 2020 where they earned just €5.4 billion. There are currently 27,000 start-ups, compared to the 9,400 there were in 2016, prior to Macron’s election.

These companies have gone on to create a total of nearly one million jobs, and will create 250,000 more by 2025, according to forecasts. 

So what does this have to do with franglais adverts? Well linguists say that the Silicone Valley culture – and English phrases – have influenced both the French workplace and popular culture.

Though a start-upper’s request for ‘un feedback’ might seem removed from the random English words interjected in advertisements, but the two are interconnected because they involve the same population.

“Advertisements speak to a particular audience,” explained Micha Cziffra who works as a professional translator, helping his clients find the right words in several fields, including marketing and communications.

He said that French people see English as “modern” and culturally relevant. It also comes down to audience, if the target is a young, cosmopolitan person, advertisers might use English to tap into that identity.

“It gives a cool, trendy impact,” said Cziffra.

He added that using English “still depends on the client, some do not want any words in English, and others – those who accept the ‘dominance of usage’ of English – will want it for putting a post on Facebook or Twitter.”

It is worth noting that are some limitations to using the English language marketing in France – it must always be accompanied by a translation in French, as per the Loi Toubon.

READ MORE: ‘Right to French’ : When is it illegal to use English in France?

More modern, more tech

While it is widely known that the Académie Française, the principle council for all matters related to the French language, have their qualms with the use of English words in French, some communications and marketing workers also have concerns about the impacts of these ‘in-groups’ on the rest of society.

Frédéric Fougerat is the Director of Communications for Emeria, a real estate firm. He is an outspoken critic of ‘Franglais,’ having written and spoken widely on the subject.

“In the workspace, it is often managers who impose English to make themselves appear more serious and business-oriented,” said Fougerat.

“It can become a handicap for others who do not speak or understand English as well. It can exclude them.”

He adds that the use of English is often intended to “impose hierarchy” as well as to signal one’s cosmopolitanism – pointing to international degrees and experience.

“The language of Molière is marvellous. The language of Shakespeare is marvellous. They are less marvellous when we mix them.”

A long history of mixing 

Yet, according to Julie Neveux, who refers to English and French as ‘cousin languages,’ the two have been mixed for centuries. 

Franglais is a menace that is not real. We must distinguish between language and the symbol of economic dominance of English,” said Neveux.

To her, the outcry over anglicismes is more reflective of fears of American dominance in commerce, technology, and the general global economy.

“In the 17th century, there was a panic about Italianismes – a fear that the Italian language would invade and take over from French, because Italy was an economic power at the time.” 

Neveux agrees that concern around exclusion is legitimate – older generations in France are less likely to have a strong command of the English language, and socioeconomic status can also exclude working class populations from gaining English-speaking experience abroad.

But in advertising, exclusion is the name of the game. There is, according to Neveux “an economic interest in not talking to part of the population” for selling certain products.

Even governmental announcements have audiences in mind.

Neveux looks over public announcement from Paris’ 10th arrondisement above, written in a playful mix of English and French. At first she giggles, and then she explains that there is clearly an audience in mind.

“For the Mairie du 10ème, it is clearly focused on youth. It has a humorous tone, and it’s intended to appeal to a younger generation who like to play with codes.” 

The final group concerned by English words in French advertisements is of course native English speakers themselves, as these adverts appear very different for Francophones versus Anglophones. Julie Neveux explained that this is due to the fact that once an English word is appropriated into French, it often takes on a French pronunciation and a revised meaning in the French context. This makes the English word essentially French in practice. 

“Think of the word ‘week-end‘ in French. It comes from the English term ‘weekend.’ It has a different meaning from ‘fin de la semaine’ in French because it accentuates the English idea that the working week is over,” said the linguist.

Neveux explained that in French, people say ‘je vais partir en week-end’ which translates exactly to “I am going on weekend.” The syntax of the sentence is different in French than in English, as over the last century the French word ‘week-end’ has evolved to carry its own sense.

This is why if you see an advertisement like the one below, while scratching your head trying to make out the meaning, the French person beside you may be laughing, loving the joke.