Frequent commenter Neij asked me a while back to write an entry about verlan, a form of French slang where the letters or syllables of a word are loosely interchanged, effectively making a new word. The main thing is that the result sounds good.
Verlan is very simple, really, for example: femme becomes meuf (woman), fête becomes teuf (party), vas-y becomes zyva (go!), fou becomes ouf (mad). Interestingly, the metamorphosis doesn’t necessarily stop there. Verlan words can also be "reverlanised" when the original verlan word has become mainstream and is seen to have lost its street credibility. A new word is therefore needed, and the looseness of the process means that rather than going back to the original word, it is transformed into an entirely different word. For example, arabe becomes beur, which in turn becomes reubeu. A lot of verlan words are in common usage in French; for a useful list, click here. Gail at Open Brackets also has touched on this subject.
Another common verlan expression is à donf (from à fond, the shortened form of the expression à fond la caisse = as quickly as possible). As I was watching Ellen Macarthur’s return to Falmouth after breaking the solo round-the-world record yesterday, I noticed that this expression adorns her boat. This shows how verlan, which, like all slang, is originally created as a code among a specific group of people (here, suburbian Parisians, as Language Hat makes clear), can become widely accepted, to the point of becoming the motto of a British woman who is arguably the best sailor of her time, and has now been named a Dame.
Jean and Julien were wondering in the comments of the previous entry what the difference between a Lady and a Dame is, and this is my explanation (I could be wrong, please correct me if I am). Being named a dame means being awarded the title of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She had already been named a Member of the OBE in 2001, so she’s been promoted within that order of chivalry (there are five classes: Member, Officer, Commander, Knight or Dame Commander and the highest, Knight or Dame Grand Cross). Lady is a title of nobility that you can only acquire through birth or marriage.

By | 2016-10-18T15:51:25+00:00 February 9th, 2005|Words|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Jean February 9, 2005 at 9:47 am

    Best explanation and links on verlan I have ever seen, Celine you are amazing.
    But you are only half correct about Dame and Lady. Lady is not just a title acquired by birth. Woman can also be made Life Peers, members of the House of Lords, the upper house of the British parliament, and they are then called Lady or Baroness – I think they can choose these days whether they are known as Lady Mary Smith or Baroness Mary Smith. Labour politicians who are made life peers when they retire often choose to be called Baroness rather than Lady, because Lady has those connotations of ‘noble birth’. I’m still not sure this is quite right, but I think so… anyway, I think both Dame and Lady should be abolished and replaced by a new system of honouring people like Ellen Macarthur for outstanding achievement, but not with reference to royalty or empire!

  2. céline February 9, 2005 at 10:12 am

    Thanks for that explanation Jean, most useful.

  3. Jean February 9, 2005 at 11:02 am

    Oh, ‘un feuk’ (policeman) – that is nastily enjoyable…

  4. Neij February 10, 2005 at 12:46 am

    Wow, many thanks for such an interesting and informative article, Céline! Tying it in with Ellen Macarthur’s success was a stroke of genius. I ran à donf by my wife (we both have degrees in French, but from nearly 20 years ago). Neither of us would have known where to start with it.
    Do you know of any films where it verlan is used naturally as part of the everyday dialogue of the characters? We’re both a bit lacking in real experience of French life and it’s a bit difficult to picture how verlan is used on a day-to-day basis from a knowledge (however valuable otherwise) of Zola and Mauriac!
    Thanks again for rising so admirably to the challenge (though it wasn’t intended as such)

  5. céline February 10, 2005 at 8:12 am

    Neij, the only film I can think of is La Haine ( by Mathieu Kassowitz (Amélie’s boyfriend in, well, Amélie, that’s not relevant but I find it quite surprising, considering how different both films are, and that he acted in one and directed the other). I seem to remember there is quite a lot of verlan in there, as it’s set in the Paris suburbs. Let me know if you watch it!

  6. jf February 10, 2005 at 9:26 am

    “a donf” has been always adorn on helen’s boats,it was 4 years ago on the vendee globe challenge

  7. jf February 10, 2005 at 10:40 am

    “L’Esquive” de Abdellatif Kechiche, good film and verlan a donf!!!

Comments are closed.