Body parts in French: Useful vocabulary
Published on June 24, 2022 / Updated on January 5, 2024
Whether it’s to describe somebody, talk about your health or learn how to dance in France, the vocabulary around human body parts in French pops up in many areas of daily life. As such, you will find it both useful and easy to learn these words as you will regularly encounter them, including in many idiomatic expressions. It will also introduce you to a few common turns of phrase and grammar rules in French.
First things first, you must be wondering what is the translation for “body” in French. The word for it in French is le corps and it doesn’t change in the plural form. To help you memorize les parties du corps (the body parts) more easily, we have divided them into three categories, according to the main sections of the body.
Let’s start from the top with the different parts of the head. All the words are listed in the singular form, even when they are commonly used in the plural, as is the case with les dents (the teeth) or les lèvres (the lips).
The only exception is les cheveux (hair): the word is always used in the plural form when you refer to the hair on your head. If you use the singular form le cheveu, then you are referring to a single strand of hair. If you wish to talk about hairs on other parts of your body, such as on your armpits or your legs, then you need to use the word le poil.
We also need to mention the word for “eye”. Not only is it one of the most difficult words to pronounce in French, but it also has the particularity of having completely different forms in the singular and in the plural. One eye is un œil, whereas two eyes are les deux yeux.
Caught in the middle, the mid-body has some of the most important organs to fulfill basic functions, like digesting, breathing and blood pumping.
From the top of your thighs to your little toe, let’s now walk through the lower part of the body.
Now that we have gone over what the body parts are in French, the next step is to learn a few useful rules to use this vocabulary in sentences.
As with all other nouns in French and contrary to English, the words for body parts must always be preceded by an article. This is the case for instance when describing the physical appearance of a person:
C’est l’homme avec les cheveux blonds.
>> This is the man with blond hair.
Elle a les yeux verts.
>> She has green eyes.
Reflexive verbs are a type of mostly -er verbs in which the subject and the object of the action are the same person, as you can see in this example: Je m’habille (literally “I dress myself”). Many reflexive verbs in French are used for daily routine actions, including for daily grooming that involves body parts. In English, in such sentences, the body part is introduced by a possessive adjective:
I wash my hands.
However, in French the use of reflexive verbs makes the possessive adjectives redundant. Instead, the body parts are preceded by a definite article:
Correct: Je me lave les mains. (literally, I wash myself the hands)
Incorrect: Je lave mes mains.
Incorrect: Je me lave mes mains.
Here are few more common examples:
|I brush my teeth.
|Je me brosse les dents.
|I shave my chin.
|Je me rase le menton.
|I cut my hair.
|Je me coupe les cheveux.
|I wash my face.
|Je me lave le visage.
|I put makeup on my eyes.
|Je me maquille les yeux.
When talking about your general health, there are three useful turns of phrase you need to know:
This is probably the most common phrase to express general pain. It can be used with just about any body part:
Il a mal à la tête.
>> He has a headache.
J’ai mal au cou.
>> My neck hurts.
Elle a mal aux dents.
>> She has a toothache.
As you may have already observed from the above examples, the only small difficulty comes from the use of the preposition à with the definite article. While the feminine version à la is fully regular, au and aux are the contracted versions of à + le (for masculine words) and à + les (for plural words).
Beware also of the false friend avoir mal au cœur: Even though the literal translation is “to have a heartache”, the real meaning is “to feel nauseous”.
Very close to avoir mal à, the expression se faire mal à refers to the act of hurting yourself. As such, it is most often used in the past tense:
Je me suis fait mal au dos hier.
>> I hurt my back yesterday.
For more serious injuries, you may need the reflexive verb se casser:
Il s’est cassé la jambe en skiant.
>> He broke his leg skiing.
Just like for the vocabulary around animals, words for body parts are used in many idiomatic expressions in French. While it is impossible to list them all, the following table includes 12 common turns of phrase, their literal meaning and their actual meaning:
|Avoir la tête sur les épaules
|To have the head on the shoulders
|To have one’s head screwed on right
|Ne pas fermer l’œil de la nuit
|Not to close the eye throughout the night
|Not to sleep a wink
|Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventre
|To have one’s eyes bigger than the belly
|To bite off more than one can chew
|Se voir comme le nez au milieu de la figure
|To be seen like the nose in the middle of the face
|To be obvious
|Donner sa langue au chat (in the context of a riddle or a quiz)
|To give the tongue to the cat
|To give up trying to find the answer
|Avoir le bras long
|To have the long arm
|To be influential, well-connected
|Donner un coup de main
|To give a knock of the hand
|To give a helping hand
|Manger sur le pouce
|To eat on the thumb
|To eat on the go
|En avoir plein le dos
|To have the back full of it
|To be fed up
|Prendre ses jambes à son cou
|To take one’s legs to one’s neck
|To run away
|Ne pas arriver à la cheville de quelqu’un
|No to arrive to someone’s ankle
|Not to hold a candle to,Not to be half the man/woman somebody is
|Casser les pieds
|To break the feet
|To get on somebody’s nerves
From the actual words to the grammar rules and the turns of phrase, you now have all the basics to memorize and to use the vocabulary of body parts in French. The next step is to practice through various topics, such as health and hygiene, physical description, sports and manual activities.