Nine French words that the French just don't use

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Nine French words that the French just don't use
A dictionary of France's Academie Francaise (Photo by JEAN-PIERRE MULLER / AFP)

These words are all technically correct and are in the dictionary - use them in everyday conversation however and you're likely to earn yourself a few funny looks and sniggers.


1. Sacré bleu

This one seems to crop up in Anglophone news headlines all the time when journalists wish to create a sense of classic Frenchness. For example, a story by CBS News was headlined 'Sacre bleu! Wine is destroyed in France because of surplus'.

The reason for this is probably that it's in many French textbooks that Anglophone schoolchildren use so they grow up thinking that all Frenchmen shout sacré bleu ! whenever they tread in dog muck or run out of Gauloises (probably because the textbook writers think it's too soon to start teaching kids about the joys of a good putain).

In reality this is very rarely used in France for the simple reason that it's very old fashioned. It would be like turning up in England and shouting 'crikey' or 'golly Moses' at people and expecting them not to smirk.

Although we should report that one writer at The Local says she heard it recently from a woman in the street who was nearly knocked over by a cyclist. She did add, however, that the woman was 'about 95'.

2. L'accès sans fil a internet

This is a proper phrase that was coined by the venerable Academie Française and it means connecting to the internet without the use of wires or cable.

For some reason, however, the cumbersome phrase never really caught on and the French prefer using the far simpler 'wifi' which was coined in the Anglophone world.

In French however it is pronounced 'weefee' and after some debate it was decided that it should be masculine - le wifi. So if you need access to the internet in a hotel, café or meeting space you can simply ask someone Avez-vous le code pour le wifi? - do you have the wifi password?

3. Faire l'amour

Anyone reared on a diet of romance novels and fantasies about charming Frenchmen and/or beautiful French ladies may be hoping to do a spot of this. But in the same way that not many people really say 'making love' in English, faire l'amour is not widely used in France either, especially among the younger generation.

French people, especially younger ones, generally use either coucher (to sleep with), the word sexe or a few slightly cruder alternatives like baiser or niquer.

There are, of course, many French slang options to describe a game of hide the sausage, while in a medical context you're more likely to hear rapport sexuel - sexual relations.


4. Ménage à trois

And while we're hovering around the bedroom, this French phrase may be very well known in the Anglophone world to describe a night of fun involving three people, but is rarely used in that sense in France. If this is what you're after, you'd do better propositioning your two likely candidates for un trio.

5. Nonante

Sadly, this is not used in France and you're stuck with the cumbersome quatre-vingt-dix. The practical Swiss have decided that some of France's famously more outlandish numbering systems soixante dix, quatre-vingt, quatre-vingt-dix (70, 80 and 90) should be replaced with septante, huitante and nonante.

In some parts of Belgium these are used too but not in France. So if you're based here you're stuck with puzzling out that 'four twenties, ten eight' means 98.

6. Mobile multifonction

This is another one courtesy of the Academie Française. The French language enthusiasts are so concerned about the possible erosion of the French language by a flood of new tech words from America that they've recently devoted quite a lot of time to coming up with French translations for popular tech gadgets and systems. This is a translation of 'smartphone' that has never quite caught on.

In reality most French people will refer to their 'smartphone' or even just their portable under the assumption that these days it's actually quite hard to find a cell phone or mobile phone that doesn't have internet functions. Surprisingly, the French pronounce 'iPhone' as 'eye-phone', not 'ee-phone' as you might have expected.


7. Courriel

Another tech translation that never quite caught on is un courriel - this is the correct French translation for an email, but in reality most French people, especially the younger ones, will simply refer to un e-mail or un mail if they wan to send you an email.

You're likely to see courriel in formal letters or on government websites, however.


Used in the Anglophone world to denote a fancy party invitation that requires a response Répondez s'il vous plait is a well-known French phrase. The use of French, of course, indicating that this is a sophisticated affair that won't involve beer, chips or strippers. 


But in France you won't see that on invitations, if it's the kind of do that needs a response, the phrase used will be a simple Réponse souhaitée.

9. Mot-dièse

If you want to tag someone in on Twitter it's probably best not to use this one. Another contribution from the Academie Française, this provoked not just disinterest but hilarity on social media when it was suggested as an alternative to hashtag.


Comments (3)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Iain 2023/12/18 17:28
The phrase 'Ménage à trois' refers in English NOT to a sexual event involving three people but *living arrangements*, the key is in the word 'Ménage' i.e. 'household'. The English word which means the same as 'trio' in French is actually 'threesome'.
Anonymous 2020/05/23 04:13
How about "cul-d-sac" - used in the UK a lot for describing a road without an exit - but is it used in France? And "ensuite" for a bedroom which has its own bathroom?
Anonymous 2019/07/03 07:55
I've heard from French people that the old phrase was never 'Sacré Bleu' but 'Sacre Bleu' (no accent). As you say it's known but rarely used. For me its use and mispronunciation in English is equivalent to French people saying "DamNED" (pronouncing the "ed") which seems to be of the same vintage (Dumas' Musketeers)

See Also