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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Nine French words that the French just don’t use

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.

Nine French words that the French just don't use
Don't always trust the dictionary. Photo: Y-Boychenko/Depositphotos

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 in a San Fransisco based newspaper about an international battle over internet domain names was headlined 'French scream sacré bleu at US government'.

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 (and fair enough, it's probably 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'.


French tech words have a few traps for the unwary. Photo: AFP

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 sexy French ladies may be hoping to do a spot of this, but use the phrase and you'll find yourself less likely to score. In the same way that not many people really say 'making love' in English, faire l'amour is not widely used in France either. French people, especially younger ones, generally use either coucher (to sleep with), the English word 'sex' or a few slightly cruder alternatives like baiser or niquer.

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.

READ ALSO


If you want fireworks in the bedroom, you'll need to get the vocab right. Photo: AFP

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 techy new 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 pretty hard to find a cell phone or mobile phone that doesn't have internet functions.

READ ALSO OPINION France's fight against new English words is totally stupid

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.

8. RSVP

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 or chips. 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.

 

Member comments

  1. 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)

  2. 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?

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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