Are these the most maddening words in the French language?

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Are these the most maddening words in the French language?
Photos: Pixabay

In honour of French language week, here's a look at a list of words that will keep learners up at night in cold sweats.


Some of these words are hard to say, some are hard to spell, some are hard to understand... and some have just too many meanings.
Here are some words in French language that have learners tearing their hair out.
These words are all basically pronounced the same, but they mean wildly different things: Green, direction, glass, worm, and verse. 
The picture below, in which a green worm is going towards a green glass, would be written like this in French: "Le ver vert va vers le verre vert".
Impossible, non?
What a tricky little word. Depending on how you pronounce it, it can mean two opposite things - either "more" or "none".
Eg: Il y en a plus (pronouncing the 's') means there is more. Il n'y en a plus ('s' silent) means there isn't any left.
This also has two opposite meanings: 'no one' and 'someone'. French language expert Camille Chevalier Karfis spells it out:
Il y a une personne dans le café means "There is one person in the coffee shop".
Il n'y a personne dans le café means "There is no one in the coffee shop".

Easy, right? 

As a noun, this word means "a kiss". As a verb (with exactly the same spelling).. well... read the dictionary definition below...
The words for "good" and "well" can be tricky to master, but in short, bon is usually an adjective to go with a noun while bien is usually an adverb to go with a verb. 
"This can be challenging for Americans who tend to say "I am doing good," when they should say "I am doing well," says Veronique Savoye, better known as French Girl in Seattle.
Eg: Comment allez-vous? Je vais bien, merci. (I am doing well thank you.) 
Comment sont les frites? (How are the fries?) Elles sont très bonnes. (They are really good.) 
And avoid "Elle est bonne" at all costs, if someone asks how a specific woman is going (as in: How's the wife?). 
You would be referring to her skills in a specific area that involves lying down. Do not say "Elle est bien" either. What you want is "Elle va bien."
99 (and basically any number above 69)
The French have an unusual way of putting numbers together, as we have written about in detail here
After sixty-nine, funny things start to happen because the French don't have a separate word for seventy, or eighty, or even ninety.
Take 77 for example, or rather, ‘sixty-ten-seven' as it would be said in French. And it gets worse. Ninety-nine translates to "four-twenty-ten-nine" or quatre-vingt-dix-neuf.
Can you imagine the life of salesman trying to sell discount TVs for €99.99?
Qu'est-ce que c'est?
This phrase, which means "What is that/What is it?" is hugely common and easy to pronounce, but notoriously tricky for some to spell. There are just too many similar sounds for it to roll off the pen (or indeed the fingertips for typists). 
And not only that, it's basically nonsense if you translate it literally:
Plutôt or plus tôt?
Don't worry, the French even seem to struggle with this one (according to the number of Google results that come up in French when searching for this - over 200,000 for the record).
Essentially, the two are homonyms - they sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean different things. Plutôt = rather and plus tôt = earlier.
C'est pas terrible
English speakers can be forgiven for getting confused with the word terrible in French, as saying "c'est pas terrible" actually means something is terrible, rather than isn't, as you would think at first.
You've probably seen this word before around French cities - it means locksmiths (the place where a locksmith works). But how on earth do you pronounce it? This word topped out list of most unpronounceable French words in 2015, and hence deserves a mention among the most annoying French words. 

This French town pictured below is not pronounced Reems, more like Rahnce. 
Yes, while we're talking about hard words to pronounce, we can point you in the direction of ten towns across France with essentially unpronounceable names. Topping The Local's list was Reims, followed by Caen, and the Rouen. See the rest here
Photo: WikiCommons
The verb "to sit" or "to be seated" is probably the most annoying verb in the French language. For starters, not only is it irregular, but it has two entirely different conjugation forms (one for assoir and the other for asseoir) - and it only gets more complicated from there. 
We recommend you only learn how to say "Sit down" and "Can I sit here" and then fake the rest. If you're a stickler for the right way to say it, here is a taste of ONE of the conjugations (and this is only for the main tenses).  

Believe it or not, all the words above are pronounced more or less the same - similarly to "say" in English. The definitions of the words are many, and range from "it is" to "to know". 
Beginners to the French language will learn quickly that nothing will really help here except context. 
Un hôte, une hôtesse
This word means both guest and host (in masculine and feminine forms respectively). And when you're learning French, it's bound to come up and catch you out when you're least aware. 
Fingers crossed a little slip up doesn't see you agreeing to host a dinner party when you thought you were only going to be a guest. 
And lastly... as if an introduction in France wasn't a fraught experience already, one of the most two-faced of "false friends" in French is the verb "s'introduire". 
Naturally, you would think it means "to introduce". It actually means to penetrate, insert or enter. So next time you meet a group of French people and you want to suggest you should all "introduce each other", the verb you're looking for is "se présenter".
Another version of this article was published in February 2016


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Anonymous 2020/11/19 12:34
Very enjoyable list...

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