Eight ways to express surprise in French apart from Oh là là

Oh la vache, macarel, mon dieu - learn how to be surprised like a native with these expressions

Oh là là! There are many French expressions to show surprise or shock
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Expressing surprise is an integral part of any language and French has many phrases and interjections to serve this purpose.

Some are used all over the country while others are only used in specific regions or by specific groups of people. They are also used in different contexts and to express different levels of surprise or shock.

We have compiled some of our favourite so you can sound like a typical French person the next time you receive an unexpected piece of gossip or witness an extraordinary sight.


The most direct translation of this term is ‘eh?’.

Used everywhere and by anyone, it is mostly employed after someone tells you something surprising and you reply quickly without processing it properly.

People will also say hein? if they have not heard what the other person said properly as well as a few more usages you can learn more about below.

Read more: Hein? A little word that helps you sound much more French


Though halluciner means ‘hallucinate’, it is used more figuratively than in English.

J’hallucine is most often used in two cases: to express total disbelief or angry surprise.

For example, if you came back home and your child had made a terrible mess everywhere, you might exclaim j’hallucine ! C’est quoi ce bazar ? (I cannot believe my eyes! What is all this mess?)

On the other hand, if you witnessed an incredible last-minute goal in a football match, you would also exclaim j’hallucine, this time to mean ‘I cannot believe it’ but in a more positive way.


This word is used in the south and comes from the Occitan language. It is an interjection that is similar to ‘oh my word’.

If you are slow to leave in the morning, you might suddenly exclaim: Macarel ! Il faut que j’y aille, je suis en retard. (Oh my word! I must go, I am late)

Je suis abasourdi

This word denotes a great shock and its closest translation is ‘stunned’. For example, if you found out about someone dying, you could say La nouvelle de sa mort m’a abasourdi (the news of his death stunned me).

It is actually not linked to the word for deaf (sourd). Instead, it is derived from the slang word basourdir which means to kill. That is why it is pronounced with a ‘z’ sound and not an ‘s’ in the middle, despite most natives pronouncing it with the 's' sound.

Read more: Rester bouche bée: Our French expression of the week

Oh la vache

This is an informal phrase that you should not use in a professional or formal setting.

It literally means “oh the cow” but it is employed as a way of showing your surprise, usually preceded by a gasp.

The surprise can be positive or negative. For example, if your partner takes something out of the oven and it looks either surprisingly delicious or completely burnt, then you can say Oh la vache!

It is the equivalent of ‘oh my god’ in its usage and meaning.

Tu m’espantes

This expression is also used in the south and comes from the Occitan word espantar, which means to scare.

However, it now means to surprise someone in a positive way and to impress them.

For example, if you are playing a game of pétanque and someone you expect to be bad actually plays an incredible boule, then you can say tu m’as espanté!

Mon dieu

Literally meaning ‘my god’, this expression is not informal like oh la vache but has the same meaning.

It has variations across the country, such as in Brittany where they use Ma doué or in the south where they use boudiou (which replaced Bon dieu, an expression with the same meaning).

It can be used in almost any context to show surprise, such as Mon dieu, comme il pleut! (Oh my lord, look at that rain)


This term is derived from an Arabic word: astaghfirullah, which means ‘God forgive me’ or ‘I seek forgiveness from Allah’.

Over time, it transformed into starfoullah and is used by the younger generations.

It is very informal and actually has no meaning in Arabic.

If someone stole your belongings, you could say: Starfoullah il a volé mes affaires!

Oh là là!

This phrase is used in a wide variety of situations.

It does not literally mean anything but can denote surprise, admiration, disappointment and more. It is sometimes written oh ! là ! là ! and if you ever need to display an emotion but you are not too sure how to express it, oh là là with the right inflection will do the job.

Read more

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