Seven useful informal French expressions you don’t learn at school

These words will add colour to your spoken French

These popular expressions are likely to be used during chit-chat and small talk with friends
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Written and spoken French, like in most languages, are markedly different. There is even a tense, le passé simple, which is exclusively used in writing.

The grammatical structure of sentences also changes in conversation compared to on the page, so what you may learn in textbooks might not be relevant in an informal conversation.

Learning these everyday expressions and terms will also add colour to your language and make you more comfortable in small talk. We explain the appropriate context and way to use them.

Être à la bourre

This means to be late but it denotes more urgency than je suis en retard, which is the literal translation of ‘I am late’.

You would say je suis à la bourre in a panicked voice as you rush out in the morning, late for work and running to the car while putting your shoe on with one hand and tying your tie with the other.

The expression originated from a card game named bourre. Up to four players would put in the same amount of money and it would be divided after each round according to the number of tricks that each player made.

The player making the least tricks would be described as bourru or à la bourre, meaning behind the others and therefore late. Gradually, it became a common expression outside of the game.

Read also: ‘Je n’en reviens pas!’: How to use the verb venir in everyday French

Se grouiller

This word can be difficult for anglophones to pronounce due to ‘ouille’ sound, which has no equivalent in English. It sounds like ‘grou-ee-eh’ said fast. 

Grouiller literally means to mill about or be teeming with something, but se grouiller means to hurry up. It is informal and something that friends would say to each other when impatient with a friend who is running late. 

In fact, you could say: grouille-toi, on est à la bourre (hurry up, we are running late). Not one to say to your boss or your partner’s grandmother as they would be likely to take offence. 


Piger - pronounced ‘pi-jay’ — as a verb means to understand. J’ai pas tout pigé (note that the ‘n’ of negation from ‘je n’ai’ has been dropped as it is an oral expression) means ‘I did not understand everything’.

A pige also means a year. It is most often used by younger people, who would say j’ai 20 piges (I am 20 years old). It is also a term for a one-time article or commission completed by a journalist, although this is less widely-used.

Though these definitions seem very different, they all stem from the same original meaning of pige as an arbitrary unit of measurement.

En avoir ras-le-bol 

If you have ever been told off by a French person, it is likely that they exclaimed j’en ai ras-le-bol.

The English equivalent is ‘I am fed up’ or ‘I have had it up to here’. Literally, the expression means ‘my bowl is almost overflowing’.

If not used in anger, then it is used to complain about something. It is quite informal and would likely upset someone if used about them.

Read more: Six tongue twisters to test your French

Se casser

Casser means to break but the expression se casser means to leave. 

If you are told casse-toi, this is an unfriendly order and it would be best to remove yourself from that situation quickly.

However, if you are out for drinks with friends and want to move on, you could say Bon, on se casse ? (Right, shall we head off?)

It probably comes from the image of someone falling and potentially breaking something as they hurry off. 


Nickel (pronounced 'nee-kell') is a useful word to describe something as good or just give a positive reaction or confirmation to something. It comes from nickel, the silvery-white shiny metal and therefore came to mean something good.

If your friend shows you a new painting and wants to see how you think it fits into your living room, you might say Franchement, c’est nickel (honestly, it is perfect).

If you are setting a time to meet with a friend, and they suggest a time that works for you, you can respond by saying nickel (perfect).

Read also: Informal synonyms for everyday French words

Se planter 

This literally means to plant, but if you hear it in an informal context, the person most likely means that they have made a mistake or failed something. The best English equivalent would be ‘to get something wrong’.

Il s’est planté à l’examen means ‘he failed his exam’.