Try swapping syllables in French words to sound like a native

France has a rich history of wordplay, involving exchanging sounds in words and phrases, in literature, journalism and slang

Word games are often used by French politicians and newspapers, such as the collection of spoonerisms that the Canard enchaîné features every week
Published Last updated

“The Lord is a shoving leopard.” You may have heard of this expression, originating from Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who was Warden of New College in Oxford in the beginning of the 20th century.

In honour of him, such an expression is called a ‘spoonerism’ and refers to a phrase with sounds in the wrong place - he was of course referring to the Lord being a loving shepherd.

Other examples include ‘A blushing crow’ (crushing blow) and a ‘well-boiled icicle’ (well-oiled bicycle).

Spoonerisms are called contrepèterie and are almost considered a form of art, dating back to at least the 16th century and author François Rabelais, and popular among politicians and journalists.

The weekly newspaper Le Canard enchaîné even has a section dedicated to them called Sur l'Album de la Comtesse, with contrepèteries published every week.

Modern French slang also makes heavy use of this concept of swapping sounds. Verlan is a type of argot (slang) that involves inverting syllables to make an entirely new word, while keeping the meaning of the original word.

Verlan itself means l’envers or reverse in English.

Read more: ‘Jourbon!’: What is France’s backwards slang Verlan?

Contrepèteries in literature

Contrepèteries almost always hide a burlesque or vulgar meaning.

One of the first recorded uses was by Rabelais in 1532 in Pantagruel, the chronicles of the eponymous giant.

In it, he describes some women as folle à la messe, which, translated to English, means crazy about mass, in the sense of enjoying it.

However, if you swap the ‘f’ and ‘m’ sound, then you are left with the phrase molle à la fesse (with soft bottoms), insinuating that these church-going women were also sexually active.

Victor Hugo, a man with an enormous sexual appetite, also sometimes added contrepèteries to his writing.

The most famous was le vaincu de son cœur (the loser of his heart), which appeared in Les Quatre Vents de l'esprit, published in 1881.

Swap cœur and cu and you have le vainqueur de son cul, which means the winner of her bottom.

Read more: 12 phrases to show why ‘cul’ is a pillar of the French language

Paris mairie’s unintentional contrepèterie

Some spoonerisms are unintentional, as was the case with the Paris mairie in 2013.

The mairie had come up with a new slogan to celebrate new paths that were opening on the Seine’s banks: les berges sont à vous (the banks are yours).

A journalist from the Monde quickly noticed that the slogan was in fact a contrepèterie, if you replace the ‘b’ from berges with the ‘v’ from vous.

Les verges sont à bout hides another sexual meaning, as verge is a word meaning penis and à bout is an expression meaning exhausted.

Child-friendly contrepèteries

Not all contrepèteries are rude.

Some are child-friendly, such as un lien vaut mieux que deux tutorats (a link is worth more than two guidances).

Swap the ‘l’ from lien and the second ‘t’ from tutorats and you are left with Un tiens vaut mieux que deux tu l'auras ('a here you go is worth more than two you will haves').

That phrase is the equivalent of ‘a bird in hand is worth two in the bush’, meaning that having something concrete and guaranteed is worth more than promises that might not transpire.

You might hear this spoonerism by someone to describe the weather: un champ de coton (a cotton field). It can be transformed into un temps de cochon (pig weather).

The expression comes from the fact that pigs used to be butchered around November when the weather was often bad.

See if you can work out the spoonerism of this phrase: Gary part de Lyon. Remember, it is the sounds that are swapped, not the spelling, so try saying it out loud. Hint: It is a famous train station.


Verlan is nowadays an integral part of slang. Almost any word is subject to it, and it usually involves swapping the first and last syllables.

A common example is cimer which is the Verlan form of merci.

Another example is ouf, meaning fou or crazy. It can be used as an adjective to describe something (quel émission de ouf, meaning what an incredible TV show) or as a noun (c’est un ouf, meaning he is a crazy person).

A word that is already slang can also have Verlan applied to it, such as mec which is a word to mean man or flic which means ‘police officer’.

In Verlan, they become keum and keuf. You may notice that keuf is not an equivalent of flic. That is because the original Verlan was keufli, which is flic backwards, but the ‘li’ part was dropped to simply become keuf.

There are seemingly no rules associated with Verlan, so you can try and make your own versions. For example, you might say a liseva instead of a valise (suitcase), although you will get some funny looks.

Read more

Informal synonyms for everyday French words

10 French words and phrases that are untranslatable in English