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12 French phrases that English really should have too

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
12 French phrases that English really should have too
Want a word for the pleasure of reading a good book? French has you covered. Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

Some French words and phrases cause a translation crisis because they have no exact equivalent in the English language, while others just express lovely concepts in a single word. Here are some of our favourite French words that English really should have too.

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1 Bouquiner

In English we just have one verb - to read - that covers everything from reading your tax declaration before signing it to spending a lazy afternoon on the beach reading a good book.

The French verb bouquiner means to read, but specifically to read for pleasure. The verb lire is used for all types of reading, but if you want a slightly old-fashioned word to convey the sheer joy of losing yourself in a wonderful book, then bouquiner is for you. 

Il n'y a rien qui me détend plus que de bouquiner dans un café – There's nothing that relaxes me more than reading a good book in a café.

It's from this verb that we get les bouquinistes – the booksellers of used and antiquarian books, in their green stalls along the Seine river banks.

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2 Flâner 

A verb with a distinctly Parisian twist, this is usually translated into English as to stroll or to wander but neither really does justice to this activity.

It means walking, but also taking in the sights and sounds of the streets and possibly having some elevated thoughts as they do it. It has a sense of sophistication, possibly even intellectualism, as it originated in the 19th century when only the moneyed classes had the leisure time to take aimless strolls.

If you are walking round to the corner shop to buy toilet cleaner, you are not flâner (or un flâneur if you want the word for someone taking part in this activity). If however, you are taking an aimless stroll along the banks of the Seine, contemplating the historic architecture and the transience of all human experience then you've nailed it.

As the spelling shows, a flâneur was traditionally always male, and the word also carries a slight sense that you might also be checking out the ladies and even moving on to a seduction if the mood takes you. More recently there has been a female version coined - flâneuse - but it's yet to really take off.

If this is your kind of activity you could also be a boulevardier - someone who wanders the boulevards.

3 Voilà

This is such a good word that many English-speakers just steal it, although its use in French is different to how English-speakers use it.

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In French is it less of a dramatic reveal moment and more of an everyday addition to general phrases - when the waiter brings your coffee, when you're scrabbling around in your purse and find the correct change, when you've signed the document and hand it back.

Many people also use it as a sort of verbal punctuation, to indicate that they have finished their explanation or that something is satisfactorily concluded.

READ ALSO How the French really use voilà

4 Emmerder

This word caused a translation crisis in Anglo newsrooms in 2021 when president Emmanuel Macron said Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. 

Headlines in English-language publications ranged from 'hassle the unvaccinated' to 'inconvenience', 'get on the nerves', 'piss off' and 'put in the shit'. The problem was that there is no exact translation that really covers what Macron wanted to do.

Emmerder can be used in a straightforward way as being annoying - Tu m'emmerdes ! - You're really pissing me off!

But is also carries a sense of making life difficult for someone, more akin to 'putting them in the shit' (which is the most literal translation of the word). 

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Macron was talking about the use of the vaccine pass in France, which made everyday life inconvenient - but not impossible - for unvaccinated people by making them unable to visit bars, cafés, leisure centres and various other pleasurable venues. He wanted to make their life inconvenient and annoying (in order to pressure them into getting vaccinated).

There's also the perennial problem of translating vulgar or swearwords to give a sense of exactly how strong they are - emmerder is vulgar and mildly offensive, so unusual (although not unknown) for a president, but not truly profane. Which is why many publications including The Local opted for the similar-strength phrase 'piss off'.

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But ultimately English doesn't have an exact translation for 'to piss someone off by making their life difficult'.

Which is strange, since everyone has enemies whom they may wish to inconvenience. 


That staircase moment has happened to us all. Photo: AFP

5 Esprit d'escalier

Definitely something that everybody has needed at least once in their life. It's that moment when, 20 minutes after the argument has finished, you think of the absolute perfect zinger of a comeback that would have decisively won you the argument and made you look extremely cool into the bargain. But by then it's too late and the only thing more pathetic that losing an argument is running after your opponent when it's finished to tell them your perfect comeback.

That moment is esprit d'escalier and it's one of life's most infuriating things.

It's said to have been coined by the French philosopher Denis Diderot, who obviously wasn't as quick-witted as he would have liked, and refers to the architecture of most Paris buildings where you leave by going downstairs from an apartment or salon, so the answer comes to you as you walk away down the stairs, giving you the literal translation 'spirit of the staircase'.

It's a mystery where there has never been an English equivalent - maybe the French place higher value on a pithy comeback?

6 Chanter en yaourt

Singing in yoghurt is not something that should be attempted literally - not without access to a shower, anyway, but it's something that most people will have done at one point or another.

It describes making an effort to sing along with something, probably because everyone around you is singing and you don't want to stand out, but without actually knowing the words. So instead you make a series of vague noises that you hope will blend in with what everyone else is singing.

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Maybe a little more common in France thanks to the preponderance of pop songs in English, but certainly not unknown in the UK, as this clip from 1993 shows.

Conservative politician John Redwood attempts to sing along to the Welsh national anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) while quite obviously knowing none of the words and only having a fairly vague idea of the tune.

 

 

7 Ras-le-bol

This is often translated into English as fed up, but it's more than that. Literally translating as a 'full bowl' it's a sense of general gloom, despondency and anger when something is just too much to tolerate any more.

You can use it specifically - J'en ai ras-le-bol de l'école! (I'm fed up of school) or in a more general sense, such as the news headline "C'est le ras-le-bol general!": tout un service de police se met en arrêt maladie pour protester".

In that context (a whole French police department going on sick leave as a protest) there is a "ras-le-bol general" a general sense of anger or gloom.

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As French people are in general perhaps less reserved than their Anglo counterparts at expressing their discontent, you will often see the phrase on banners during strikes, to describe how people are completely fed up with something.

And as a distinctive phrase it can also be easily cannibalised, such as in the Twitter account ras le scoot, in which people who are sick of inconsiderate scooter drivers post photos and video.

Maybe non French people need to up their general outrage before they can score a harder phrase than the rather wimpy 'fed up'?

8 Entarter

Perhaps not an everyday part of everyone's life, but this French verb means to throw a pie at someone, or smash a custard pie in their face.

For example - Je me suis fait entarter - Someone threw a pie at me/I've been custard pie-ed.

There's a fine French farce tradition which maybe makes this more popular in France, but over the years it's been a fairly regular feature on political campaigns, not to mention a mainstay of comedy classics like Laurel and Hardy. Maybe they should have thought up a verb for it while making the film?

In a similar vein, you can also be enfariner - have flour thrown at you - which is the same construction, from farine (flour) so literally means be-floured. This happens to politicians on the campaign trail fairly regularly.


Beatrice Dalle, very attractive but not conventionally beautiful. Photo: AFP

9 Jolie-laide

This translates as 'pretty-ugly' but it means someone, almost always a woman, who is not conventionally beautiful but is still very attractive.

French actress Beatrice Dalle is often cited as an example of this - a very sexy and charismatic woman, despite her unusual features and gappy teeth.

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Some argue that this shows a French disregard for the conventional standards of beauty, with others say it is still a patronising term based on assessing a woman through her appearance alone. We'll gently tiptoe away from that debate, while recognising that the phrase itself can be a useful to describe many things that defy conventional notions of beauty or ugliness.

10 La douleur exquise

This really just means unrequited love but in French it's a) more poetic and b) really conveys the gut-wrenching pain of loving someone while knowing that they will never love you back. Literally translated as 'the exquisite pain' it conveys the heartbreak of an unrequited passion so much better than the English alternatives like 'the friend zone'.

Quel est le problème avec Marie? Jean-Paul l’a rejété. Ah, la douleur exquise - What's the matter with Marie? Jean-Paul rejected her. Ah, unrequited love.

11 L'appel du vide

Ever sat or stood somewhere high and felt an overwhelming feeling that you might jump? Even though you obviously never intend to jump, the edge holds a strange fascination, a call you might say.

The 'call of the void' can be used more generally to describe the urge to engage in self destructive behaviour during everyday life, but it's only ever an urge, not something acted upon. 

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As-tu déjà ressenti l'envie de traiter ton patron de connard chauve et de partir? Bien sûr, nous ressentons tous l'appel du vide de temps en temps - Have you ever felt the urge to tell your boss he's a balding dickhead and then just walk out? Of course, we all feel the call of the void from time to time. 


Don't waste time with complicated explanations of your lateness, just wave it all away with the catch-all French excuse. Photo: AFP

12 Empêchement

Not the same as what US presidents occasionally face (French newspapers generally translate impeachment as the rather dramatic sounding destitution) empêchement is an extremely handy phrase if you're running very late.

It's basically a get-out-of-jail-free card for any kind of lateness, which you can simply explain away as being down to empêchement, or an unexpected last-minute change of plans.

Suitably vague, it saves hours in thinking of complicated excuses, or being caught out on your claim that the Metro isn't running by someone who just arrived on the same line. Maybe the closest English equivalent is the British politician excusing himself with the phrase 'events, dear boy'.

Often attributed to former PM Harold Macmillan it's never actually been reliably authenticated to anybody, which just goes to show how much English speakers need an empêchement.

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Comments (3)

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Anonymous 2023/03/01 15:08
On the contrary, the phrase 'Events, dear boy, events' has been categorically attributed to Macmillan. The former BBC Political Editor John Cole (perhaps the definitive TV political commentator) recounted that, in the course of an interview with Macmillan late on in his life, he had asked him what he had found to be the most difficult thing to cope with in his Premiership and that this was the answer Macmillan gave. I know this because I watched the TV programme in which Cole recounted the anecdote.
Anonymous 2022/01/11 14:14
Brilliant! Informative, useful - and very entertaining... Many thanks for this and all the others, Emma; keep up the good work! Tony P
Anonymous 2022/01/10 18:59
You say that "l'esprit d'escalier" should be translated as "spirit of the staircase", but in this case "esprit" means "wit", so it should be translated as "staircase wit".

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