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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

From ouch and shush to yummy – 10 of the most useful French sounds

Onomatopoeia is the written version of a sound - think 'ssh', 'ouch' or 'bang'. And like everything else, they're a little bit different in French, writes French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis.

Shush illustration photo
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Smack: The sound of a kiss

The French don’t make a kissing noise or say “mwa” – they say “smack” (or even smack smack) for the sound of a soft kiss in French.

It’s even the common name for a peck on the lips. “Il m’a fait un smack” – he gave me a peck on the lips, a soft kiss. A far cry from the English definition of ‘smack’ (as in, to slap).

Paf: The sound of hitting something (or someone)

In French, a slap (une gifle, une baffe) is accompanied by a big “paf!” (we say “et paf, une baffe!+”).

Other French sounds for hitting would be “vlan”, “pif” (especially when hitting someone on the nose), “pof”, “tchoc”, “tchac”, “bang”

Guili-guili: The sound for tickling

OK, OK, this isn’t quite an onomatopoeia, but it’s still a good one. While in English you might say tickly tickly or something equally ridiculous, in French it’s the adorable guili-guili. Pronounce this one with a hard G, the u is silent. So Gili-gili.

Ouin-ouin and Areuh-areuh: The sounds to imitate a baby

Similar to how a crying baby makes a wah-wah noise in English, they say “ouin-ouin” in French, featuring the very nasal sound “in”.

And instead of something like “coochy-coo” when talking to a cute little tyke, French people say “areuh-areuh”. 

Pan-pan! The sound of gunfire 

It doesn’t sound quite as menacing as the English bang bang… but “pan-pan” is in any action comic you’ll pick up in France. 

Chut: The sound for ‘shhhh’

Next time you’re at a French cinema and you’re being disturbed by a loud popcorn eater, turn and say “chut” to them. It’s a pretty loud word for a hushing sound, if you consider the T is pronounced, but we can guarantee it’s effective.  

Plouf: The sound of falling into water

You can forget making a splash; when it comes to the French onomatopoeia, it’s a “plouf” all the way. And the sound for falling on the ground is “patatra” (rather than whack, or kaboom).

Aïe: The sound for pain

Anyone who has ever read a French Asterix comic will have seen this. It’s pronounced just like “eye” and is often repeated three times: “aïe-aïe-aïe”! In English, we might say ow or ouch, which you’ll agree are a lot less expressive. 

Miam: The French version of Yum

French people often show their appreciation for food by humming a “mmmm” sound, but they’re also very likely to say miam. Worth remembering next time you’re dining with your French mother-in-law. 

Beurk: The French sound for Yuck

If you’re in France and you’re eating something like an Andouillette, you might say “beurk” if you felt like being particularly rude. We recommend you don’t put this one into practice too much, perhaps you should stick with “miam” (above).

Ron-ron: The French sound for sleeping

And lastly, there’s no zzzz for the French, who prefer a gentle “ron-ron” instead to signify sleeping. If you really roll your R while saying it, you can easily see why they say it. 

This story was put together by French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis, the founder of the language site French Today

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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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