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French word of the day: Guignol

The dictionary will tell you this means puppet, but that's not quite the whole story.

French word of the day: Guignol

Why do I need to know guignol?

Learn guignol and you will seriously impress people with your in-depth knowledge French culture, politics and society. Seriously, it doesn't really get much mire French than this.

What does it mean?

If you tap the word guignol into Google Translate, the search engine suggests “the bloodthirsty chief character in a French puppet show of that name that is similar to Punch and Judy.”

It's not too far out. Punch and Judy is a popular British puppet show that first appeared in 1662 and, in the centuries to follow, gained international fame for its fearless political incorrectness.

Guignol, which really means 'puppet' or 'marionette', is most popularly associated with Les Guignols, a French modern version of Punch and Judy. For the 30 years the show aired (from 1988 until 2018), the puppets featuring in Les Guignols had a tremendous impact on French popular culture, ridiculing politicians and famous personalities in a way only dolls can.

The satirical TV show immortalised itself through iconic displays of several French Presidents. Jacques Chirac, a frequent puppet-guest, sometimes turned into the character Super-Menteur, ‘Super-Liar’, whose superpower was the ability to utter unbelievable lies without getting caught.

Former President Jacques Chirac appeared frequently in the French TV show Les Guignols. Photo: AFP

How do I use it?

The term guignol was popularised through the show and today it's often used to state that someone is a “fool,” “idiot” or “clown.”

French people may mutter quel guignol ! – what a clown! at the TV, when listening to a politician they dislike.

You can also use it when talking to or about someone:

Arrête de faire le guignol. Stop fooling around.

Papa fait toujours le guignol, et parfois il se fait mal. Dad is always clowning around. Sometimes so much so that he hurts himself.

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French Expression of the Day: Les grands esprits se rencontrent

Though this phrase has a close English equivalent, it's just so much more poetic in French

French Expression of the Day: Les grands esprits se rencontrent

Why do I need to know les grands esprits se rencontrent?

Because you might want to use this phrase the next time you and a friend have the same idea for how to spend vacation.

What does it mean?

Les grands esprits se rencontrent – usually pronounced lay grand eh-spreets suh rahn-cahn-truh – literally translates to “the great minds meet each other” or “the great spirits meet each other.” More appropriately, the very poetic phrase in French translates to the English expression “great minds think alike.” 

For the French phrase, it actually finds its origins with Voltaire. In 1760, he wrote a letter to another well-known French writer at the time and included the phrase: “Les beaux esprits se rencontrent” (the beautiful minds meet each other) to emphasise the fact that both expressed the same idea at the same time.

Over time, the phrase switched from ‘beautiful’ minds to ‘great’ minds, but the meaning remains the same. The phrase is usually said ironically in French, and can be used more or less interchangeably with the English version of this expression (which curiously has different origins altogether). However, sadly, the French version does not include the snarky reply: “and fools seldom differ” 

Use it like this

J’avais envie de pizza pour le dîner mais je lui ai demandé ce qu’il voulait quand même et il a dit pizza. Les grands esprits se rencontrent ! – I was wanting pizza for dinner, but I asked him what he wanted anyways, and he said pizza. Great minds think alike!

Nous pensons tous deux que la vue de Paris depuis le Belvédère de Belleville est la meilleure de la ville. Les grands esprits se rencontrent. – We both think that the view of Paris from Belvédère de Belleville is the best of the city. Great minds think alike.