The French you learn at school is often not what you hear: 5 examples

Taff, truc, fric - the alternative words you hear in conversation

Find out how you should refer to your friends rather than just calling them ‘amis’

There is the French you learn at school - and there is the real French you hear in conversations on the street. 

Native speakers often use synonyms for everyday words to make situations more informal. 

You may be lost at first when hearing these terms but once you unlock them, you gain access to the authentic ‘French speak’ that is not taught in school. 

Here are five examples:


What you learn at school: Homme

What you often hear in France: Mec, gars, bonhomme

Homme, meaning man, is commonly employed but people tend to use mec, gars and bonhomme instead in everyday chat. 

Mec originally referred to a person of power. It then came to mean someone who thought of themselves as important and today, it simply means a man. If someone refers to mon mec, ton mec or son mec, it almost definitely means they are talking about a boyfriend. 

‘Guy’ is the closest equivalent to gars in English. It comes from the word garçon (‘boy’). You may also hear people refer to mon gars, which could mean a friend or a boyfriend. 

Literally meaning ‘good man’,  bonhomme has been used for hundreds of years in France. It can have various connotations but generally simply means a man. 

You might say J’attendais dehors et un mec est venu me parler (“I was waiting outside and a guy came and spoke to me”).

Read more: Platisme, masculinisme: The French words added to Larousse dictionary


What you learn at school: Travail, emploi

What you often hear in France: Taf, boulot, job, bosser

Travailler means to work, with both emploi and travail referring to someone’s job. However, if you were sitting down at a bar for a catch-up with your friend, some natives would not use these words to ask about their friend’s work. 

Instead you might hear: Alors, ton nouveau taf ? (“So, your new job?”) In the beginning of the 20th century, taf referred to your part of the loot that you would receive in return for your work, hence it coming to simply mean work today. It also became the verb taffer which means to work.

Boulout is a word used fairly uniformly across France, no matter age or education. It is not exactly clear where the word originated from, although some attribute it to carpenters. A bouleau referred to a piece of wood that was hard to work, and therefore possibly became boulout

Job is also commonly used. It is an anglicisme that irritates French purists but, nevertheless, they are spreading more and more. 

Finally, bosser means to work. For example, if you are invited on a day out, you might respond with Je ne peux pas, je bosse ce jour là (I cannot, I am working that day). 


What you learn at school: Chose

What you often hear in France: Truc, machin, machin-bidule

In the classroom, you are likely taught that a ‘thing’ is called une chose. In reality, you will not often hear this. 

If someone does not know the name of something, they are more likely to refer to it as truc, machin or even machin-bidule

Let us imagine you have bought a new gadget and your friend spots it for the first time, they will say C’est quoi ce truc (what is this thing?). 

These words are used to designate unknown objects. 

Read more: Why being told to go cook an egg in French is rarely a good thing


What you learn at school: Voiture

What you often hear in France: Bagnole, caisse, vago

At school, you will have been taught that a car is called a voiture. This word is commonly employed but there are some informal synonyms that are perhaps more common. 

Bagnole originated from the Gaul word benna, which meant a chariot with four wheels. It is more typically used by the older generation. 

Caisse, which literally means ‘box’ or ‘checkout’ is also slang for car. It is not entirely clear where it originates from. 

Vago is a word that has appeared recently. It is connected to the word ‘wagon’. The ‘W’ makes a ‘v’ sound in French, which explains the spelling. This word is most often used by the younger generation. 

When you are making plans, you might ask On y va en bagnole ? (‘Are we going by car?’)


What you learn at school: Ami

What you often hear in France: Copain/copine, pote, collègue, mon vieux 

If you are asked ‘c’est qui ce mec ?’ (who is that guy?), you might be able to respond with ‘c’est mon pote’ (he’s my friend). 

Though ami is the direct translation of friend, there are many different informal terms used depending on age and region. 

For example, collègue, which means colleague, is used to designate a friend in Provence. 

Read more: Map of French accents: which do you prefer?

If you are going out for a girl’s night, then you would say je sors avec mes copines ce soir (I’m going out with my girls tonight).

When greeting an old friend, you might say ça fait longtemps mon vieux (it has been a long time my friend). 

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