'Vachement': French Slang That's 'Really, Bloody' Useful

Plus its derivatives: 'vacherie, vache, parler comme une vache espagnole'

Vachement, pronounced vahsh ma(n), is not about cows, even though the root is vache, French for "cow" among other things. It's an adverb in colloquial French for "very, really, bloody" and it's been extremely common since the late 1940s or so. It's also a pronoun in vachement de meaning "a lot of."

This catch-all term is used by just about everyone in France at one time or another, and by some, several times a day in expressions like C'est vachement difficile !

("It's really hard!) and C'est vachement sympa. ("That's so cool / nice!)

The Intensifier

What it seems to be more than anything is a term that conveys a feeling of the superlative rather than any specific meaning, an intensifier that amplifies in a general but extreme way the adjective or adverb it modifies.

Vachement is so popular that it has an entourage of derivatives that are also pretty intense: The noun une vacherie signifies "rottenness, meanness, a dirty trick," or "a nasty remark"; the adjective vache means "rotten" or "nasty"; and the charming little expression parler comme une vache espagnole disparages one's foreign language skills by comparing them to a "Spanish cow." Poor Spanish cows. 

Why cows?

Naturally we wondered, what's the deal with all the cow expressions? Vachement seems to have inspired a whole, albeit tiny branch of the French language. Lisa Anselmo writing on WWW.com, a solid site for word nerds, has a theory based on her research:

 Around 1880, the word vache—cow—became slang for “evil” or “severe.” It seems that French cows are crankier than their U.S. cousins, perhaps from being over-milked for all that cheese. By the turn of the century, vache had developed into a derogatory term for a wicked or vengeful person: “You cow, you”—similar in vehemence but not quite the same as the British expression (which is reserved for women). Then, in about 1930, the cows got a reprieve, and vachement evolved into the kinder, quantitative meaning: “a lot; so very.” Vaches Actus didn’t say how this evolution came to be, but I’m guessing it was during the Roaring Twenties, perhaps at the legendary brasserie La Coupole on Boulevard Montparnasse (it’s still there!), when, after much champagne, someone—Sartre or Man Ray or Simone de Beauvoir?—uttered something like, “Gawd, that is wickedly mahvelous!” Et voilà, “wicked” came to mean “very.” This is not an official explanation, you understand, but it’s vachement plus exacte than the one my French friend offered.

Could be. For now, let's take a look at some sentences using vachement and its derivatives.

Expressions with Vachement and Its Derivatives

  • On s'est vachement trompé. > We made one hell of a mistake.
  • Elle est vachement belle, ta robe. > That's a really beautiful dress you're wearing. 
  • Ça fait une sacrée différence !  > That makes a big difference ! 
    Oui, vachement ! > You can say that again !
  • Je t'assure qu'il t'aime. > But I'm telling you he loves you.  
    Oui, vachement ! (ironic) > Like hell he does ! (very familiar)
  • J'ai vachement aimé ta pièce. >  l really liked your play.
  • Il est vachement bien, ce bouquin. > This book is really great.
  • Il est vachement grand ton appartement ? Is your apartment really big?
  • Viens te baigner, l’eau est vachement chaude. > Come on in. The water’s really warm.
  • Je suis vachement occupée cette semaine. > I’m really busy this week.
  • Ils ont l’air vachement dangereux. > They seem / sound pretty dangerous.
  • Ca m’aiderai vachement si tu portais mes valises. > It would really help if you carried my bags.
  • Un million, ça fait vachement l’affaire. > A million would really do it.
  • faire une vacherie a quelqu’un > to play a dirty / rotten trick on somebody
  • Il me disait des vacheries. > He was saying really nasty things to me. / He was being really horrible to me.
  • faire un coup vache a quelqu’un > to play a dirty / rotten trick on someone
  • C’est vache de ta part. > It’s rotten of you.
  • Allez, ne sois pas vache. > Come on, don’t be rotten/ Come on, be a sport. (UK)
  • Je bosse chez moi, ça me fait gagner vachement de temps. > I work at home; that gains me a lot of time.