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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

13 slightly weird facts about the French language

To mark International Francophonie Day, we have collected together some of the more unusual features of the French language.

13 slightly weird facts about the French language
Photo: WikiCommons

1 The longest word in the dictionary is anticonstitutionnellement at 25 letters. 

2 The longest French word of all is the full chemical name for thiamine which has 49 letters. Click here if you want to see it in its entirety, we don’t dare risk spelling it incorrectly. 

3 The shortest French word with all the vowels is oiseau (bird).

4 Meanwhile oiseaux (birds) is the longest word where you don’t pronounce any of the letters individually. 

5 There are more words that have just one letter than there are letters in the alphabet. While you’ve heard of words like y and a, there are also accented words like à.

But the French also count single letters as words like j’ (as in j’aime) and c’ (as in c’est). This would be the equivalent of counting ‘t as a word in English (as in the word don’t) – and some English dictionaries actually do this

6 There’s only one French word with the letter ù, and that’s où (where). Yet the letter still gets its own key on the French keyboard.

READ ALSO What annoys foreigners the most about the French ‘Azerty’ keyboard

7 The word simple doesn’t rhyme with any other French word. Neither does quatorze, quinze or monstre

8 French is the only language (besides English) that’s spoken on all the continents. Much of west Africa is French speaking, Canada in North America, French Guiana in south America, Vanuatu in Oceania. 

9 The longest name of a French town is Saint-Remy-en-Bouzemont-Saint-Genest-et-Isson in the Marne département, north eastern France.

10 There are several words that have three e’s in a row, like créée, which means created, if the object is feminine.

11 Oeil (eye) is the only word that starts with a different letter when in plural yeux (eyes).

12 The most common letter in French is e, recurring at a frequency of 14.7 percent. It’s followed by s at 7.9 percent and a at 7.6 percent. In comparison, in English the top three are e at 12.7 percent, t at 9.1 percent, and a at 8.2 percent. 

The least common letter is the ï (known as a trema) at 0.005 percent. It’s in words like naïve, aïoli, maïs  (naive, garlic mayonnaise and corn).

13 And lastly, the shortest town name is Y in Somme, northern France.

POLITICS

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing

French President Emmanuel Macron has grabbed headlines after saying that he wanted to 'emmerder' those who choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. But he is far from the first French president to slip into colourful language.

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing
Emmanuel Macron at the statue of Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP

“I really want to piss off the unvaccinated,” French President Emmanuel Macron, drawing widespread condemnation for his choice of language.

In an interview with Le Parisien, he said that la bêtise (“stupidity”) was the “worst enemy of democracy”.

It is not the first time that the leader has used fruity language since being elected.

He has variously described the French as fainéants (lazy), les gens qui ne sont rien (people who are nothing), and Gaulois réfractaires (Gauls who are resistant to change). During a visit to a factory, he once said that protestors outside of a factory should go to work rather than foutre le bordel (“fuck things up” – or literally, “fuck up the brothel”). 

READ MORE Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ unvaxxed was deliberate and won’t hurt his election chances

Serving as the Economy Minister under the presidency of François Hollande, he said “there were lots of illiterate people” during a visit to an abattoir. 

“In a certain way, we are like prostitutes: this job is about seducing,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, describing his former job as a banker. 

Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder – “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated

Other French leaders have dished out their fair share of provocative statements – some more discretely than others. 

François Hollande 

Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, allegedly referred to the protesters and poor people as sans dents (toothless people). The revelation came after his 2017 election defeat and was disclosed by his ex-partner, Valérie Trierweiler – although we should probably point that she wasn’t exactly his biggest fan after he was caught having an affair with an actress while they were together. 

Nicolas Sarkozy 

Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007-12 is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. 

During a visit to the 2008 Salon de l’Agriculture, he was shaking hands with people in the crowd.

One man told him Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!). 

The President replied Eh ben casse-toi alors, pauv’ con ! (Well fuck off then, asshole).

Sarkozy described Hollande as an amateur, mal fagoté (shabbily dressed) and un président ridicule (a ridiculous president). He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots). He described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (mannish/butch), Xavier Bertrand as un médiocre and François Fillon (who served as Prime Minister during Sarkozy’s presidency) as un loser

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy described the residents of Argenteuil as racaille (scum) after a visit to the Parisian suburb saw his convoy ambushed by people throwing objects from tower block.

Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac is best known internationally for his opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

While he may have been reluctant to launch military attacks, verbal assaults were his strong point. 

Before becoming President, he served as Prime Minister where he met with Margaret Thatcher at a European summit. After a disagreement, he told reporters: Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (What does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?)

Other highlights include:

Les emmerdes, ça vole toujours en escadrille –  Shits always fly together 

Les sondages, ça va ça vient, c’est comme la queue d’un chien – Polls come and go, like a dog’s cock

On greffe de tout aujourd’hui, des reins, des bras, un cœur. Sauf les couilles. Par manque de donneur – We transplant everything today, kidneys, arms, a heart. But not balls – because of a lack of donors. 

For a much longer list of Chirac’s insults, gaffes and hot-mic moments, click HERE.

Charles de Gaulle

As the founding father of the fifth republic, it would be wrong not to include Charles de Gaulle on this prestigious list. 

In 1968 the president used the word chienlit to describe the social disorder around the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as “shitting in your own bed”.

Adored by many, he also uttered some fairly contemptuous words about his countrymen, saying Les Français sont des veaux  – The French are calves (suggesting weak, easily led)

Macron is something of a fan of De Gaulle, even including one of the General’s books in the background of his official portrait, so perhaps he is also emulating his language? 

Georges Clemenceau 

Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France during the latter part of WWI. He was known to have a difficult relationship with his British counterpart, David Llyod George. He once said je pouvais pisser comme il parle (I could piss when he speaks). 

Clemenceau described one of his political rivals, the pacifist Jean Jaurès, as a “dangerous imbecile”. 

Napoleon 

Napoleon Bonaparte was betrayed by one of his ministers, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who sold state secrets to France’s enemies. 

After finding out, Napoleon reportedly said Vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie! (You are shit at the bottom of a silk stocking). 

Coincidentally, Talleyrand is the man credited with popularising escargots in France

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