Verlan

Today, we are going to talk about a big topic: verlan. It is a form of slang that basically consists in inverting the syllables of a word. The word verlan itself comes from the inversion of l’envers, “the inverse”.

Verlan is used by young people (I can’t imagine an old person speaking like this), but not all young people. For example, I seldom use verlan unless I’m being ironic. Older people usually have difficulties understanding it (except some words that have become well-known), but you are very likely to hear verlan among young people.

As I said, the basic principe of verlan is inverting the syllables of a word. Bizarre (“weird”) consists of two syllables: bi-zar (verlan is about pronunciation, not spelling), so its verlan version is zarbi.

When the original word ends in a consonant, eu or e is often inserted, for example in lourdrelou (“heavy” or “annoying”).

The difficulty comes from the fact that sounds are often deleted before or after the inversion:

  • Rigoler (“to laugh”) becomes golri: the ending disappear before the inversion.
  • Very often, the end of the word is deleted after the inversion: femme (“woman”, actually pronounced [fam]) becomes meuf.

Usually, verlan words are not created on the fly, but belong to a fixed set of words. Here are a few common verlan words you might hear. Because verlan is usually spoken and not written, the spelling of these words may vary.

Usual French Verlan English
Arabe Beur* Arab
bête teubé silly
bizarre zarbi weird
cher reuch expensive
choper pécho to catch
cité téci usually poor housing estate
défoncé foncedé high
énervé vénère** irritated
femme meuf woman
fête teuf party
flic keuf cop
juif feuj Jew
louche chelou shifty, shady
lourd relou annoying
mec keum dude
merci cimer thank you
mère reum mother
métro tromé metro
père reup father
rigoler golri to laugh

* Yes, beur sounds exactly like beurre, which means “butter”, so don’t be surprised if you think you hear someone talking about butter in a context where it makes no sense.
** Don’t get vénère mixed up with vénéré, which means “worshipped”!

Listen to these words:

Some verlan words have become widespead, and may even be heard from people who don’t usually speak in verlan:

  • Meuf doesn’t exactly have the same meaning as femme: ma femme means “my wife” but ma meuf means “my girlfriend”.
  • Beur has become widely used to describe people of North African descent. It even has a femininte version, beurette.
  • A popular 1984 comedy film is called Les Ripoux. Ripou comes from pourri (“rotten”) and, in this case, refers to corrupt policemen.
  • I just learned that the stage name of the Belgian singer Stromae is verlan for maestro.

Some young people have even begun to “re-verlanize” some words: instead of meuf and beur, you may hear feumeu and reubeu!

I also have to talk about grammar. You may have noticed that verlan words include some verbs, such as pécho. This is a problem, because such a verb is impossible to conjugate. So these words are only used as the infinitive, the present tense and the past participle:

  • Je pécho: “I catch”,
  • J’ai pécho: “I caught” (past participle),
  • Je vais pécho: “I’m gonna catch” (the future tense is impossible, so aller + infinitive can be used instead),
  • J’étais en train de pécho: “I was catching” (the construction être en train de + infinitive can replace the imperfect in some contexts).

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