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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Zut alors! The French phrases you learn but don’t really need

There are French words and phrases you are taught at school or in phrase books you are convinced you need, but in reality the locals hardly ever use them or at least not in the way you thought.

Zut alors! The French phrases you learn but don't really need
Photo: nito103/Depositphotos

So you’ve arrived in France and you’re ready to test out your French. 

But zut alors (more on this phrase soon) – what you’ve learned isn’t the same language that real-life French people actually use. 

Here’s a guide to some phrases that you could leave in your text book – or indeed in the Hollywood movies – if you want to pass as a French person. 

Zut alors

Ok, we used this phrase above, but sarcastically. The only place you’ll find this exclamation is in British tabloid headlines whenever there is a mildly shocking story about France. 

The phrase, which is an old fashioned way to say “darn” or “shoot”, is pretty much confined to use by grandmas and Asterix comics. The shorter version “zut” is used more frequently – especially by parents in front of their kids.

Sacre bleu

Here’s another one you’re much more likely to see in a British newspaper than in France. But don’t bother using it unless you’re the kind of person who says “golly gosh” in English. It has had its time.

The reason the English presume all the French say this phrase can perhaps be blamed on Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, who was very fond of the phrase. And he was Belgian anyway. 

Je voudrais… “I would like” (in restaurants and bars)

If you’ve ever studied French, you’ve possibly been told that this is the only way to ever possibly order a drink or a meal in a cafe, bar, or restaurant. 

Je voudrais un café“, easy, right? The thing is, while the French sometimes order things like this, there are actually other ways of ordering something that are far more common. 

We stress: there’s nothing incorrect about saying “je voudrais“… but you risk standing out like a tourist, especially if your French accent is in the developmental stage. 

Try “je vais prendre“, “je prendrai“, or “je prends“. If you want to be really formal, try “Est-ce que je pourrais avoir“. 

READ ALSO What does the way you order coffee in French say about you?

Comme ci, comme ça

Literally meaning “Like this, like that”, this phrase is the text book way to respond to many questions if you want to say the equivalent of “so so” in English.

However, the phrase is used in French as seldom as “so so” is used by native English speakers. 

“French people in general don’t use it all that much… It’s true that it’s VERY present in the books,” says self-confessed “comme si, comme ça” user Camille Chevalier-Karfis, a French language expert and founder of the site FrenchToday.com

If you want to describe something as “so so”, there are alternatives: “pas top“, “sympa sans plus“, or just try a Gallic shrug. 

‘Va te faire cuire un oeuf’… and other outdated expressions

Benjamin Rey, who runs the Ilini website for language learning, warns that French slang can die quickly. 

“If I say ‘va te faire cuire un oeuf‘ (meaning ‘go away’, or literally, ‘go and cook an egg’), it will definitely sound dated. And also funny, which may be your intention. But be careful if humour isn’t your intention,” he says. 

“Nowadays you should say ‘laisse-moi tranquille‘ or more harshly ‘fous-moi la paix‘,” he says.

The same can be said for other French expressions you come across. Probably better just to use the ones you hear the locals using.

‘Puis-je’… and other extreme formalities 

You’re going to come across as being overly formal if you’re not careful, says Rey. Once again, there’s nothing wrong with being formal at the right time – but that’s not all the time. 

“A friend told me that she asked her teacher how to say ‘I’d be grateful if you could…’. Her answer was ‘Je vous saurais gré de bien vouloir…’. This is correct, but very formal (as it would be in English).

“You should simply say ‘Est-ce que tu pourrais…’/’Pourriez-vous‘ or ‘J’aimerais que tu/vous…’ (which is more direct).”

French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, founder of FrenchToday.com, says extreme formality is one of the biggest problems for her students.

“I personally never use ‘puis-je‘ – only ‘est-ce que je pourrais‘, for example,” she says. 

It’s also crucial not to talk like you would write, she says, as written French and spoken French can be quite different.

“Répétez s’il vous plaît” – Please repeat that

While some phrase books might tell you to use this phrase when you don’t understand something, do it with caution. 

“The basic ‘répétez s’il vous plaît‘ should be avoided unless you didn’t hear well the first time around,” says French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis.

“When you say ‘repeat please’, the person will just repeat exactly the same thing.”

“Furthermore, ‘répétez‘ is an order, it’s a bit harsh for everyday situations. Say something like ‘désolé, je n’ai pas bien compris‘ (‘Sorry, I didn’t quite get it’) which will encourage the person to rephrase their sentence.”

Mais non!

It’s easy to use “Mais non !” incorrectly, says Chevalier-Karfis.

“We do use it in French, but not at the end of each sentence… Actually it’s quite a strong negation, usually showing an emotion such as surprise, shock or total disagreement.”

“Same goes with ‘mais oui‘ which is like ‘why, yes, of course’ giving the impression that what was said was super obvious.”

Je m’appelle …
 
It’s one of the first things you learn at school, “Bonjour, je m’appelle …” for “my name is”. 
 
You may indeed ask “comment tu t’appelles ?” for “what’s your name?”, and the correct way to answer is to say “Je m’appelle”…
 
Of course there’s nothing wrong with sticking to what you know but it’s uncommon in everyday life to use the verb appeller to introduce yourself.
 
Instead you are more likely to just simply say your name in response.

Voulez-vous coucher avec moi …

Hopefully, no one actually believes that French people go round bars using words made world famous by Christina Aguilera, which translate to “do you want to sleep with me?”  

But what people may not realise is that it’s actually a weirdly formal way of saying it, and more like written French – so certainly not the smoothest way to charm a French person.

You’d hope too that by the time you were asking someone to go home with you, you’d have moved on to the informal “tu” form of “you” (instead of vous).

This phrase is unfortunately reserved mostly for tourists trying to impress the French. And guess what, the French have heard it before and aren’t typically impressed (so we hear). 

Garçon!

If you’ve ever used this to get the attention of a waiter in France, we’re sorry to tell you but your food may not have arrived at your table entirely uncontaminated.

As any Pulp Fiction fan knows, garçon means boy – or at least literally.

Using the word garçon to refer to a waiter comes from the phrase “garçon de café“, which refers to career waiters – but these days that’s very rarely used and it comes across as pretty patronising to address a fully grown man as ‘boy’

Excusez-moi” or a gesture works just fine to get their attention, and if you need to address your waiter directly you can call him Monsieur.

Mademoiselle

You might find it strange that such a common word like mademoiselle is a contentious issue in France. But it truly is.

The distinction traditionally marks out whether a woman is married or not, which is pretty sexist because the same distinction isn’t applied to men. 

The word has been banned from French administrative forms and feminist groups want it phased out altogether. 

It’s usually OK if you’re talking to a very young woman (late teens or early 20s) but for anyone older than that it’s safer to stick with Madame.

Is it time for the French to finally ditch the word mademoiselle?

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FRENCH WORD OF THE DAY

Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

From 'Monsieur Dupont' to a 'Flasher', via an unsavoury metaphor involving flies and a word for meat-lovers, here's a roundup of some of our favourite French words and expressions of the day.

Nine of our favourite French words and expressions of the day

Every weekday, The Local publishes a French word or phrase of the day, with the emphasis on slang, sayings, colloquialisms and (sometimes) swearing. Our aim is to introduce readers to the words and phrases that they won’t learn in French class, but they definitely will hear during the course of everyday life in France.

We’ve been publishing a daily word since 2018, so by now we have a fairly hefty back catalogue – you can find it HERE. Members of The Local can also sign up to our Word of the Day mailing list and get each day’s word or phrase delivered straight to your mailbox.

Here’s a selection of the words and phrases we published in January;

1. Monsieur Dupont

You might know someone named Dupont, after all, it’s a fairly common name in France. And, yet, Monsieur Dupont is not always real – in fact the name is frequently used in a metaphorical context to signify an everyman figure, or someone whose identity is not known.

Pronounced: miss-yur doo-ponn 

Learn more about France’s ‘John Doe’ here.

2. Flasher 

You might be curious why French newspapers are writing about the number of “serial flasheurs” on the country’s roads. But it’s not what you think as this word is a classic faux ami (false friend). Flasher in French does not mean – as it does in English – someone who has exposed themselves in public.

In fact it means either taking a photograph, shining a (metaphorical) spotlight on something or falling head-over-heels in love. The photographic meaning is the most common, particularly in reference to being photographed by a speed camera.

Pronounced: flah-shay 

Find out more here.

3. Larguer les amarres

This originally nautical expression now has a less literal meaning to “let go” of something or launch something new. It’s most commonly heard in the context of a new start like moving house or starting a new job, or the end of something – in particular the end of a love affair.

Pronounced: lar-gay lays ah-mahr 

Find out more here.

4. Être bouleversé

If dinosaurs could talk, they may have used this French phrase to describe being hit by the asteroid. The word can be used in both extremely happy and extremely sad situations, to describe being either delighted or devastated by a turn of events.

Perhaps its closest English synonym is ‘bowled over’.

Pronounced eh truh bool vehr say

We explain how to use it here.

5. Enculer les mouches

Enculer les mouches has an extremely crude literal translation but as a phrase is actually not all that offensive (although it’s definitely casual).

In English we might call someone who is very picky over grammar and spelling a ‘pedant’, in French it’s the distinctly more dramatic ‘sodomiser of flies’. Interestingly, French is not the only language to have a very rude phrase for pedants, others include ‘comma fucker’ and ‘little dot shitter’.

Pronounced: ahn koo lay lay moosh 

Learn more here.

6. Viandard

We know that traditional French cuisine is quite meat-heavy and the French love their meat. However viandard has two meanings – the first being simply a person who loves meat, the second being an unscrupulous person who exploits others for gain. The secondary meaning is though to come from the hunting world.

Pronounced: vee-ahn-darr

We explain fully here.

7. Vœux

Vœux is the plural form of the word vœu, and is useful at weddings and other solemn occasions because it means ‘vow’. But the reason we have included it in our January roundup is because at the start of the year it is common for politicians, CEOs and other leaders to make ‘vows’ to their electorate or employees. 

Pronounced: vuh

Learn more here.

8. Amortisseur

This word might be already familiar to you if you are unlucky enough to have car trouble in France – it means shock absorber. But it can also be used in a metaphorical sense to describe a device or plan that cushions the blow or softens the impact, and in 2023 has a very specific meaning relating to electricity bills.

Pronounced: ah-more-tee-zur 

Let us tell you more here.

9. 6h pile

As any dictionary will tell you, the main meaning of the French word pile is a battery. However it can be used to mean “exact” or “sharp” when used to describe a moment in time – so 6h pile means “6am sharp” or “6am on the dot”. It’s also used in several phrases and expressions relating to time.

Pronounced: peel 

Full details here.

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