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French expression of the day: Langue de bois

Nothing to do with wood or trees, this is a useful to shout at exasperating bureaucrats or politicians.

French expression of the day: Langue de bois

Why do I need to know la langue de bois?

An expression that does not translate literally, it's a handy little phrase if you're feeling exasperated with a French politician or bureaucrat (un fonctionnaire) who cannot seem to just answer the question.

What does it mean?

La langue de bois literally translates as wooden language, but here it's nothing to do with lumberjacks. Instead it's used to describe the moment when politicians or civil servants, having been asked a perfectly straightforward question, reply with a load or jargon and pre-prepared statements. It's variously translated into English as political cant, waffle, jargon, double-speak or government-speak.

It's thought that the phrase arrived in French via Russian and Polish and had a brief period of being used in English as well, although is not widely used.

The French academic Françoise Thom wrote a book on the subject in 1987, where she identified four characteristics of la langue de bois; abstraction and the avoidance of the concrete, tautologies, bad metaphors, and a tendency to divide the world into good and evil.

In France, the phrase is particularly associated with graduates of the elite Ecole nationale d'administration (ENA) whose alumni – including current president Emmanuel Macron – are often accused of using particularly impenetrable jargon.

But it can be used for any politician waffling away on the TV without answering the question, or a French official document that uses jargon so dense as to make it incomprehensible to even native speakers. 

So you could say;

J'aime bien le nouveau Préfet, il n'utilise pas le langage du bois comme le reste des politiciens – I like the new Préfet, he doesn't use government-speak like the rest of the politicians

Typique! Posez une question directe au ministre et il répond en utilisant un langage en bois. – Typical! Ask the minister a direct question and he just responds with a load of waffle.

For more French words and expressions, check out our French word of the Day section.

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French Expression of the Day: Système D

It might sound like a military operation, but you will probably have to use 'system D' at least once during your time in France.

French Expression of the Day: Système D

Why do I need to know Système D?

Because if your train was cancelled during a strike, or your childcare arrangements suddenly fall through, then you might need a ‘system D’.

What does it mean?

Système D roughly pronounced sis-tehm day – may sound like the name of a rock band or a computer programming device, but it has little to do with music or coding.

In reality, Système D is a French expression reserved for situations where one must be resourceful and inventive – it is defined as ‘the art of getting by’ or ‘making do’ or perhaps ‘cobbling it together’ and it has been used for several decades in France.

You might use this expression if you find yourself having to make do in a complicated scenario. For example, the French press said parents were forced to adapt after a recent strike closed schools for the day. One French article quoted a parent who said “On fait ce qu’on peut, c’est le système D” (We do what we can, it is a make-do situation).

The “D” part of Système D actually comes from the French word “débrouille (or se débrouiller)” which means “to get by” or to work to put things in order.

Use it like this

Ne vous inquiétez pas, Michel s’adaptera à n’importe quelle situation dans laquelle vous le mettez. C’est un expert du système D. – Don’t worry, Michel will adapt to any situation you put him in. He is very resourceful.

Se rendre au travail était le système D la semaine dernière, alors que toutes les options de transport étaient fermées en raison de la grève. Il fallait être très créatif. – Getting to work was a make-do situation last week, when all public transportation was closed due to the strike. You had to be really creative.