Body parts in French: Useful vocabulary

Body parts in French: Useful vocabulary

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 9, 2022

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.

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The essential list of body parts 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.

It’s all in your head: Vocabulary for the shoulders up

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.

French English
la bouchethe mouth
les cheveuxthe hair
le couthe neck
la dentthe tooth
le frontthe forehead
la gorgethe tongue
la jouethe cheek
la languethe tongue
la lèvrethe lip
la mâchoirethe jaw
le mentonthe chin
le nezthe nose
la nuquethe nape
l’œil/les yeuxthe eye/eyes
l’oreille (f)the ear
le sourcilthe eyebrow
la têtethe head
le visagethe face

The full mid-body glossary

Caught in the middle, the mid-body has some of the most important organs to fulfill basic functions, like digesting, breathing and blood pumping.

French English
le brasthe arm
le cœurthe heart
le coudethe elbow
le doigtthe finger
le dosthe back
l’épaule (f)the shoulder
l’estomac (m)the stomach
la mainthe hand
la paumethe palm
le poignetthe wrist
la poitrinethe chest
le poucethe thumb
le ventrethe belly

Learn the lower body language

From the top of your thighs to your little toe, let’s now walk through the lower part of the body.

French English
la chevillethe ankle
la cuissethe thigh
la fessethe buttock
le genouthe knee
la hanchethe hip
la jambethe leg
l’orteil (m)the toe
le piedthe foot
le tibiathe shin

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Some important rules for body parts in French

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.

The use of articles with body parts

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.

How to use body parts with reflexive verbs

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.

How to talk about physical health

When talking about your general health, there are three useful turns of phrase you need to know: 

  1. avoir mal à + definite article + body part (to have an ache)

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”.

  1. se faire mal à + definite article + body part (to hurt oneself)

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.

  1. se casser + definite article + body part (to break a body part)

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.

12 common expressions that include body parts in French 

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:

French ExpressionsLiteral MeaningActual Meaning
Avoir la tête sur les épaulesTo have the head on the shouldersTo have one’s head screwed on right
Ne pas fermer l’œil de la nuitNot to close the eye throughout the nightNot to sleep a wink
Avoir les yeux plus gros que le ventreTo have one’s eyes bigger than the bellyTo bite off more than one can chew
Se voir comme le nez au milieu de la figureTo be seen like the nose in the middle of the faceTo be obvious
Donner sa langue au chat (in the context of a riddle or a quiz)To give the tongue to the catTo give up trying to find the answer
Avoir le bras longTo have the long armTo be influential, well-connected
Donner un coup de mainTo give a knock of the handTo give a helping hand
Manger sur le pouceTo eat on the thumbTo eat on the go
En avoir plein le dosTo have the back full of itTo be fed up
Prendre ses jambes à son couTo take one’s legs to one’s neckTo run away
Ne pas arriver à la cheville de quelqu’unNo to arrive to someone’s ankleNot to hold a candle to,Not to be half the man/woman somebody is
Casser les piedsTo break the feetTo get on somebody’s nerves

Learn the vocabulary of human body parts in French

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.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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