French Word of the Day: Nickel

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French Word of the Day: Nickel
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

This handy French word has nothing to do with metal but it can add a shine to your daily conversations.


Why do I need to know nickel?

Because this French term is a handy little slang word that can be used after a thorough cleaning or as a positive response to ca va? 

So, what does it mean?

Nickel - roughly pronounced neek-ell - means 'nickel' (as in the metal), the same as in English, but it also has a much more common secondary meaning.

This is as a positive affirmation similar to 'great', 'awesome', 'perfect', as well as 'spotless' and 'spick and span' in English.

It is thought that French speakers have used the word nickel to express enthusiasm since the 20th century, and it likely began as army slang. 

Linguists guess that the origin of the colloquial expression has to do with weapons, which were required to be kept in impeccable condition, shining so brightly that they reminded the soldiers of nickel - a silvery white metal known for its purity which, when polished, gives off a brilliant shine. 

So, the next time someone says ca va? to you, why not avoid the usual responses of ca va and bien merci and reply with a snappy nickel, et toi? (great - and you?). 


On top of that you can say c'est nickel to congratulate someone by telling them what they have accomplished is amazing or perfect. Otherwise, if you want to express the sense that something is perfect instead of nickel then you could use the more formal c'est parfait.

Similar to its origins, you can still use nickel to mean that something is very clean, for instance after vacuuming or sweeping. In this sense, nickel isn't only used in informal settings - it can also be used in a formal setting to mean 'impeccable' and 'immaculate' just like its more casual meaning of 'spick and span'. 

Some other synonyms for 'spotless' in French are c'est net (it's neat) or c'est propre (it's clean). 

Be careful, however, not to confuse nickel with the similar sounding, yet very vulgar, French swear word niquer, which means 'to fuck'.

How can I use nickel?

C'était bien passé hier soir? Oui, c'était nickel! - Did it go well last night? - It was great!

Tout est rangé? Oui, c'est nickel! - Is everything tidy? Yes, it's spotless!

Bravo, la scène était incroyable, rien à dire, c'était nickel. - Bravo, the scene was incredible, no notes, it was perfect.


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